Letter: Shed a tier for society

June 8, 2001

Tony Dennis's prediction that the new universities are likely to become, in effect, technical colleges that offer only a limited range of vocational subjects (Letters, THES , June 1) seems right.

At my university, the humanities faculty, once buoyant and with a good reputation, is already suffering from student under-recruitment and consequent pressure from management to make savings in staff costs (voluntary redundancies this year; who knows what next year).

Democracy needs a well-educated population - and this means more than "skills". It means people with a wide sense of history and culture who are capable of understanding and joining in all our cultural and political public conversations.

The effects of current funding in "access" institutions will be that all the groups Dennis mentions - people whose financial resources are insecure, to whom debt is more alarming, and who will "risk" higher education only if there are fairly certain job outcomes at the end of it - will be excluded once more from our public conversations and from influence. The secure middle classes will remain culturally dominant, and those who have access to culture will not be a reflection of the diversity of our society.

The coming two-tier system in higher education will advance a two-tier society. Of course, giving more people access to qualifications and jobs is a very important goal, but any account of a good society must include wider aims with less tangible fruits. Social inclusion via a decent job is obviously a good, but the de facto exclusion of the less privileged from the kinds of knowledges that give access to, and influence in, the wider culture will not produce a vibrant democracy.

Tony Blair claims not to be a cynic, so perhaps these effects of government funding policy are an example of the action of the law of unintended consequences. Nonetheless, he appears unmoved by the prospect of a society that increasingly, and in Oscar Wilde's definition of cynicism, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Wendy Wheeler
London N7

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