Alan Ryan

January 23, 2004

Socrates is our man if we want a Big Conversation about higher education (but we might need to up the hemlock intake)

Whatever the fate of the government’s higher education bill, the debate over top-up fees has been a wonderful lightning rod for intellectual confusion and moral incoherence. It has also provided the perennially enjoyable spectacle of self-interest and naked ambition masquerading as high principle and deep educational theory. The libel laws prevent us running a hypocrite of the year competition, but I imagine the new term will see many informal competitions for daftest vice-chancellor.

We should have such protracted debates more often. Nothing would be achieved for higher education, but we’d be in the same state as the Athenians who voted to execute Socrates for blasphemy - we’d have explored every great principle we appeal to in public life and discovered that we have no idea what we mean by any of them. We’d either turn into philosophers or be handing out hemlock on a large scale. But if we want a “Big Conversation”, we have a model.

The chief culprit is equality, an idea that evokes warm feelings on the left but was rightly dismissed by Karl Marx as a source of intellectual chaos and political incoherence. “Social justice” is its surrogate for our time. There is no agreed account of what the difference is between social justice and mere justice, and much reason to believe there is none. It is a useful rhetorical device, however, because it disguises a deep incoherence in the politics of the left. It makes the speaker sound benevolent - but benevolence is a dangerously patronising concept. Yoking it to justice nicely removes the patronising overtones by implying that its beneficiaries have a right to it without suggesting that we ought to think too hard about where that right comes from or who is to bear the cost of meeting it.

One thing we have learnt about social justice is that it is opposed to a two-tier university system. So, consider tiers. The University of Cambridge has a non-completion rate of 1 per cent over three years, while the former University of North London has one of about 39 per cent. Does this constitute the existence of two tiers, several tiers, a non-tiered slope? We could presumably tier higher education institutions by non-completion rates and have 39 ledges, some unoccupied and some crowded. Would the enemies of a two-tier system be happier with a 39-tier system or a steeply sloped system? Or what?

The other thing we know about social justice is that it is promoted by increasing access - another word with which Socrates would have had a good time. Whereas the friends of social justice are deeply hostile to talk of tiers when it comes to dropout rates, entry qualifications and earnings prospects, they are less hostile when it comes to access successes and access failures. By most measures, Wolverhampton University comes top, and on most measures Oxbridge and University College London come bottom.

Access, however, raises a few questions, beginning with “access for whom and to what?” These are the questions that bedevil the idea of equal opportunity. Access to a PhD course in engineering for someone who can’t pass GCSE maths is as pointless as access to a Steinway for an elderly, tone-deaf non-piano player such as me. Nor does the concept of access settle the question of the terms on which it is to be had. If it is access to what you want (but don’t need), why shouldn’t you buy it? I could, after all, buy piano lessons from any teacher mad enough to take me on. If it is access to what you need (but may not want), life becomes complicated; who is to say what you need, and what happens if you want something else? Outside the realm of healthcare, there is little agreement on what the concept embraces, even in education. It is an axiom among university teachers that most undergraduates need about two more years of a decent secondary education; but few of them want it, and nobody is offering to provide it.

What laziness inclines people to is agreement on a negative: what you get by way of an education ought not to depend on your ability to buy it. But that is far from obviously true. If I want to do a BA in physics in my declining years, ought someone else to pay the bill? But, if I really, really want to, and someone is willing to teach me, should I not be allowed to spend my money on the necessary courses? It might not be as much of a waste for me as for the folk teaching me: I might be a lousy physicist but a blissfully happy one. It is the view we take for continuing education classes and to an extent for Open University courses.

As for top-up fees, they are a wholly inadequate solution for problems of the government’s own making, and Socrates would surely have advised us all to go away and think about something more interesting: Truth, Beauty and Goodness, perhaps.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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