It has become gradually apparent since Margaret Thatcher adorned her general election victory in 1979 with the words of St Francis of Assisi, that the longstanding and deeply traditional class struggle of old Britain renewed itself with new energy - and the working class lost. Since that date, trade unionism has been emasculated, industrial Britain from Sheffield to Fife and the Clyde rendered derelict, and the wealthiest class permitted runaway accumulation of as much loot as it can rake in from financial double-dealing of a kind that has corrupted the very idea of the common good.
Over that period of more than 30 years, the noble ideals of common good and public weal have been starved until pale and spectre-thin, and everybody now supposes they can see straight through them. Only the NHS retains both authority and affection, in spite of the best efforts of the yellow press to disfigure it with horror stories, and of the government to imitate the worst aspects of the worst healthcare system in the rich world, that of the US.
In this swift mutation, unchecked by 13 years of Labour rule, the citizen - le citoyen - has become a phantom, his and her place taken by the self- righteous figure of, first, the taxpayer, and second, the consumer, freely delighting in the meaninglessness of choice, solicited on every side and against either reason or need to keep spending while wages decrease and credit cards bend and snap under the strain.
In these surely desperate circumstances, the state itself has been blamed by Thatcherites for all the faults and catastrophes of market piracy. At the present time, its vast power is being turned against itself in a new and even more comprehensive effort to “roll back” its scope and strength, and to diminish its assurance to its nation that it will, in Beveridge’s words, care for its people and protect them from cradle to grave.
It was Thomas Hobbes who first gave theoretic shape to the Leviathan that would, in historian Quentin Skinner’s paraphrase, serve as “the moral agent of the people”. Over the centuries since Hobbes discerned the creature that would control human viciousness and subdue the human propensity for cruelty and exploitation, nations came to count upon the state to incur and pay debt, to declare and wage war, to meet its duty to tame the savagery of economic disaster, to protect those least able to bear sudden misery and anguish, and to settle people and bring them safely home.
In a runaway world, it is then the prime ancillary duty of that multiplex institution, the public university, to guard, criticise and reimagine the duties and provisions of the state, to define the best purposes of its nation’s endeavours, to configure the well-being of its people, and in a joint undertaking by each of its discrepant versions across the country - come to that, across the world - to join in a collective act of storytelling. Its grand summation will then be a narrative for its people in which scholarship, production of all kinds, public welfare and private lives come together in such a way as to make the future emerge more or less decently and coherently from the past.
It is not usual these days to talk in these momentarily exalted accents about the idea of the university - its meaning, its moral point, its function in the polity. There will always be coarse voices bawling from the back of the auditorium that it is high time the professors did some work for a living, that universities should cough up for their privileges, that their only useful job is to make their bone-idle, toffee-nosed students pay their way and do something measurable for the gross domestic product.
There will also be sharp rejoinders from, say, a physicist fellow of the Royal Society transfixed by dark matter, from a neurotic director of healthcare desperate not to lose a shipment of overseas nursing students paying way above the odds but likely to fail their degrees, or from some head of media studies whose students want more practice on the digibox and less of all this impenetrable theory. Each will say (in professional accents so at odds with one another that the university sounds more like the Tower of Babel than one made of ivory) that the place has no common purpose or language; it is merely a locality in which society puts variously gifted individuals to work out how best to do the job in hand. The readiest model for that fissiparous activity is the market. Markets are unified by nothing but geography - there their stalls are in the middle of the town - and by making money.
The bawling voices and the plain, blunt realists found their powerful and philistine representatives in Lord Browne of Madingley, an out-of-work businessman, and David Willetts, the quality of whose much-admired and massive intellect is caught by his inane declaration: “I plead guilty to believing in choice and competition.” The Browne report was initiated by Lord Mandelson in the final months of Labour rule and accepted without debate by the coalition government. It announced not just the privatisation of universities by way of unparalleled rises in fees and cuts in grants, but also a trek from progress back to the days when social class and inherited wealth fixed the terms of access not just to professional opportunity, but to learning and knowledge themselves.
It is time for a few comparative statistics. These, as the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz once put it, may not prove, but they certainly instruct. Denmark, a smallish country where 75 per cent of its students attend two large universities and with an economy hardly immune to the eurozone’s difficulties, does not charge home students university fees and gives them all grants to live on (although it does charge those from outside the European Union). In the US (whose Ivy League universities, charging up to $40,000 (£26,000) a year in tutorial fees, are the only ones our Oxbridge-educated Cabinet has ever heard of), the 95 per cent of American students who attend their local university pay, on average, fees of $3,000 a year. Applications to our own universities, even quite grand ones up North, are this year down by anything up to 16 per cent.
Of course, applications to the headquarters of the class system at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol, Imperial College London and University College London are unaffected. Most of the Russell Group institutions have been around long enough to game any new allocation of the cheques: Oxbridge in particular, counting on the favouritism of its millionaire graduates in the Cabinet, will merely revert to the days before 1974 when the parents of public schoolboys paid their fees and grammar schoolboys brought their means-tested state scholarships with them.
It is at this point worth remarking as one walks past their large and comfortable offices how pitiful has been the response of present-day vice- chancellors, the captains of higher education, to the undebated privatisation of the only institution in the culture capable of using an upright moral vocabulary in public. Sir Steve Smith, the University of Exeter vice-chancellor who was president of Universities UK at the time, even had the egregious nerve to publish a little act of pusillanimity in an otherwise hostile collection of essays, A Manifesto for the Public University (2011), edited by the excellent University of Nottingham scholar John Holmwood. In it, Smith said that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that universities would all be rolling in cash for ever.
Well, that is where we are, except things are being made so much worse by the creatures inside the walls who speak with blithe assurance and repetitiousness the dire language of managerialism. They are turning vital and powerful concepts of the scholar’s and scientist’s life, such as “originality”, “distinction”, “intellectual idiom” or indeed “facts” and “truth”, into “impact”, “excellence” (a word it is now impossible to use without soiling one’s tongue), “signature brand” and “patented findings”.
The people who talk like this are one’s colleagues; they command and rule though, this being the UK, without ever having to shout. They mimic faithfully the same disgusting gibberish as emanates regularly from Whitehall, and all their monstrous regiment remains impervious to maledictions such as this.
What is rapidly eroding and being poisoned is the very language that not merely nourishes but also embodies, strengthens and seeks to make perpetual the idea of a public university. Its practices and principles can only be kept alive linguistically; speech and writing in the manifold idioms of public thought constitute the life of the university.
To describe that life as a public possession is to say that this corner of the “conversation of culture” (to use English philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s great phrase), conducted according to the rules of its assorted languages, gives a nation its moral lead. The language games or idioms of disciplines such as history, of congeries of inventiveness such as medicine, of modes of practical rationality such as social policymaking, together compose, in Matthew Arnold’s still stirring formulation, “the best that has been known and thought” - and, more to the argument in hand, the best that is being made knowable and thinkable in the present.
If that seems too high-flown a way of imagining the normal wakeful life of the academy, think of, say, a solitary administrator in charge of the day- to-day efficiency of a big physics department, intent as she has to be on keeping fiercely dangerous elements safe in the laboratory while scientists intent in their turn upon their all-important research try to break the rules in the great name of discovery.
Think then of a senior lecturer in healthcare strenuously resisting her moronic manager’s requirement that a particular way of teaching a course with some piquancy and imaginative energy be rebranded and tranquillised in the name of uniformity.
Call now on a different department, as the country unrolls itself beneath us. Here is a professor of the history of ideas on a polyglot multiracial campus, pondering his own research on the nature of the good republic and what his graduate students from China, Venezuela, Nigeria and Scotland will make of republican examples drawn from Italian city-states, American gentleman-farmers in 1776, and socialist Soviets after the 1917 Revolution.
Sympathise finally, in this little flight of fancy, with an ageing pro vice-chancellor, someone determined not to utter the dreadful jargon of fellows in the trade, faced with the fact that his respectable North Country university has no applicants, none at all, for Classics, one for professional ethics (closed at Keele University), none for cancer studies, but 70 for tourism management.
In every case, the conversation of the culture must prove strong enough, whatever the particular result, to affirm its own continuity, not simply on honourable terms, but also in such a way as to ensure that its canonical ideals survive and stretch into the future as living principles. The physics department must square its common safety with the falsification of hypotheses; the healthcare teacher must stare down her mad-eyed manager; the defender of the republic must find, in the tormented history of the trope, enough plausible hopefulness to post back to Shanghai or Glasgow; and as for the wretched pro vice-chancellor…is he going to be obliged to close his Classics and cancer studies departments, with all that that means not just for his duty to his locality, but also to his responsibility for the severance of small blood vessels in the body politic?
What is rapidly eroding and being poisoned is the very language that not merely nourishes but also embodies, strengthens and seeks to make perpetual the idea of a public university
When we summon up the idea of a public university, there is no immediate need to reach for Cardinal Newman. Since his time, the university has become a much more complex and sprawling place. It is already a necessarily corporate institution (corporations, that is, put vast resources into its hands and seek to dominate its diction). But it also seeks to be a profitable institution - the books must balance or else. Or else what? Would the government allow a university to go bust? One recalls that in 1981, crazed by Friedmanite economics and shamefully ignorant of Keynes, another mighty intellect from a Tory cabinet, Sir Keith Joseph, declared universities not to be “wealth-creating institutions” and slashed 16 per cent from University Grants Committee funding in one go. Present estimates of university contributions come out, as you’d expect, in the billions. In the smashed-up North, the local university is often the biggest employer.
So universities are also, so to say, localist just as they are all the time mendicant. They are, someone has added, therapeutic, in that they care for their whole population and tend as best they can their members’ wounds and insanities; dammit, they turn staff and student pathologies into research statistics, and all for the greater good (as well as the research grant).
Old Newman, however, retains a voice in all this hum and buzz of culture. In so far as the public university in its formative years took so much from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Edinburgh - and the architecture of the Robbins institutions testifies to their influence - what it took most powerfully was their public-spiritedness. Class-based those places doubtless were, but the high-minded piety of T.H. Green and the keen public consciences of such as Henry Sidgwick, John Stuart Mill and R.H. Tawney corroborated a deep-rooted tradition that transplanted itself to the civic universities, where it was endorsed and paid for by Victorian industrialists. (What we are far more likely to get now, for a price, is the “branded university” - Poppleton Virgin.)
That tradition, in an always stolid and change-averse nation, was picked up by the new county town universities after 1963 and, in 1992, by the transformation of the quondam polytechnics. It shaped, gave custom, laws, idiom and rule to the cavalcade of motley institutions now putting on cap and gown. That is what a tradition does and is, and the present oddity of things is that it is the Conservatives who are ripping it up and destroying what has been conserved.
My claim is that even in the most domestic dealings of university life - in routine contention across the committee tables, in assessments of student essays, in the strong cooperation enforced by group research, in appeals to alumni for cash, in dogged opposition to redundancies - one may readily discern in action the virtues and their ethics that universities are there to embody and enact.
They are always present but rarely named: it is a bit embarrassing to do so. But sacred name-calling is needed now if we are to face down and shame the money-besotted philistines at the gates and their obedient quislings - historian Richard Drayton’s term for them - inside. Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that in a time of splintering competition between moral languages, the life of a person or of an institution will only take on unity and therefore make sense if it is lived according to the virtues of which it is capable. Those virtues are to be retrieved from, taught and carried by a moral tradition with enough life in it to quicken the blood.
When a tradition is actively alive, it shapes the narrative of many lives so that each achieves some kind of unity, and may even become beautiful. It’s a bit shy-making to say so but the collective life of a university, by way of its buildings, its trees and lawns (I am thinking of Goldsmiths, University of London here, not Trinity College Cambridge), its domestic conduct, its curricula and committees, the common membership of porters, teachers, security officers, lab assistants, technicians, pro vice- chancellors and cleaners, may form and reform itself into a work of art.
The fruits of the spirit of the university, as the prophet might have said, are these: integrity of scholarship, honouring the facts, determining the truth, cultivating doubt, protecting life, guarding the culture, imagining the common good, defining justice, succouring mercy…to stop at that point before supreme unctuousness swamps one’s mind. The list stretches out to the crack of doom, where it will be saluted by fire and flood.
To have care of these matters is to act not just as the best part of a nation’s mind, its alter ego, but as the conscience of the state, let alone the government. A country’s possession of itself, of how it should live well and do right, will be judged, advised and inflected by the many differing enquiries and conclusions of its universities. Thinktanks are quite inadequate to the task; they are partisan establishments, sufficient only for a day or two. University authority is, naturally (the correct adverb), held in trust for the people. It cannot be the prophet of profit, for all that the parent state needs it to be profitable. A university, even in its most commonplace circumstances, ties the knot between the knower and the known, and discovers its own virtues in that tight configuration.