I've learnt my lesson: never throw the floor open to an audience of prospective students and their parents, especially when the dean, like a squat and malevolent toad, is hunched in the back row assessing your public relations skills. Having admitted the 2011 intake of seven well-favoured kine, so to speak, we await the 2012 cohort of seven lean-fleshed kine (I'm hoping we'll manage three or four) - those whose arrival, paying fees that have tripled overnight, will herald the beginning of the end of higher education as we know it.
The father who bowled me the googly was incandescent. "If you are charging the same as Cambridge, why shouldn't I send my daughter there?" Clocking the dean's glare, I choked back my instinctive answer ("Because if your daughter were clever enough to get into Cambridge, neither of you would be here today") in favour of a stammering and incoherent response that involved words such as "modern", "innovative pathways", "variety of modalities", "student-centred learning" and so on - terms from the oleaginous doublespeak now circulating around lowbrow universities that are attempting to mask the flagrant idiocy of bracketing themselves with the most distinguished in the country. The composite smell of bullshit and cold sweat filled the room - the dean's head was in his hands, my P45 a step closer ...
And yet the non-Russell Group institutions are hardly to blame. Ask a child if he would rather have £6 or £9 in pocket money. Remind him that 80 per cent of the budget for his clothing allowance is to be withheld, and then sit back and look surprised when he chooses the higher sum. Then express outraged incredulity that he has been indoctrinated by the tyrannies of the marketplace. (If there are two brains in that ministerial numbskull, they must be half-size, and are clearly not communicating with each other.) There's no bucking the markets, apparently, so which vice-chancellor in her right mind is going to cut her institution's throat in order to signal publicly that her university is second- or even third-rate? All universities are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Tony Blair's project to warehouse what would otherwise be Neets (young people not in education, employment or training) in the corridors of academe is another instance of his cynical populism. University education was the carrot dangled in front of a heretofore non-tertiary educated but upwardly aspirant population: Things Can Only Get Better, remember? The stick was employers' new-found insistence on their recruits being graduates, often in occupations that never previously required degree-level qualifications. The expansion of the university sector, ostensibly to facilitate "widening participation" in higher education, was not in and of itself a bad thing. But such an expansion necessitated the introduction of the innocuous-sounding "top-up fee" - a mechanism that has led directly to the calamitous withdrawal of the contribution generated from central taxation in favour of the imposition of what amounts to, by any other name, an educational poll tax. Cue student protests and a return to the good old days of the Trafalgar Square riots.
Had we looked to America's mass higher education systems, we could have learned some sobering lessons. Professor X's In the Basement of the Ivory Tower details the dispiriting existence of an adjunct member of faculty teaching basic literacy and literature courses, an academic untouchable. The adjunct is untenured, without health or other benefits, and paid a flat fee for each course taught. His tenured colleagues, by contrast, "are relaxed. They have paid sabbaticals and great parking spaces and guaranteed employment." X is moonlighting to service a mortgage too large for a single income. Lecturing is no vocation for him and he longs to ask his adjunct colleague, "Why are you here? Are you, too, under a house?...Did you back your sensible Toyota out of the driveway and over a child?"
The dual themes of financial and intellectual bankruptcy are two sides of the same coin, and X demonstrates with verve and incision the damage wrought by the pig-headed commodification of knowledge: "the same societal urges that lowered the bar for home ownership have lowered the bar for higher education". Grade inflation, dumbing down and ingratiating geniality (prompted by those capricious though all-powerful student evaluations) are the unavoidable consequences of such a system. The erosion of morale is intensified by a withering self-disgust: "The shit I was telling them was too easy; really, it would all be blazingly obvious to a dimwitted second grader."
A 2008 study by Northwestern University showed that in the Boston area, as Professor X relates, "88 per cent of local students did not finish community college. Eighty-eight per cent!" Yet in spite of this demonstrable failure, a 2004 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that "nearly 93 per cent of respondents agreed that higher education institutions are one of the most valuable resources to the United States". Go figure!
In an attempt to restore an ailing system worthy of this widespread if misplaced confidence, Barack Obama's American Graduation Initiative was to have given "$12 billion to community colleges over the next decade". The initiative was removed from the 2009 Healthcare Bill at the last minute, and those lucky enough to find insecure, underpaid work continue to look forward only to what Professor X calls "the relentless pulse of the stifling dead-end job". This intelligently pessimistic book offers us the shape of things to come on both sides of the Atlantic: "There is at the moment no solution to student loan debt. It doesn't go away...It can squeeze the very life out of a debtor, and we seem rather cavalierly to be encouraging more and more students to take it on for fewer and fewer rewards."
Try standing up on an open day and saying that.
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic
By Professor X
Viking Books, 288pp, £16.22
Published 4 April 2011