Philanthropic institutions are very much worth preserving, argues John Sutherland
Every government in the past 50 years has set out to raise standards in higher education. The degree of success is hotly disputed. But one thing is indisputable: the machinery - with its stress on standardisation, metrication, unitary targets, tables and grades - tends, by its mechanical nature, to iron out irritating abnormalities in the system.
But in the total educational ensemble, some abnormality is sometimes worth preserving. I have a personal warmth towards two admirably abnormal institutions of higher learning: the Mary Ward Centre and Morley College. I wrote a life story of the centre's founder, Mrs Humphry Ward, as she preferred to call herself. And the professorial chair I occupy descends in a straight line from Henry Morley.
Morley began life as Charles Dickens's assistant on his second newspaper, All the Year Round . "Mr Morley has achieved a reputation as a journalist", the appointment committee noted, darkly, when he applied for the post of head of English at University College London in 1865. They swallowed their prejudice and appointed him. Over the next 24 years, Morley built up the department, published some 300 books (no research assessment exercise then, alas) and - just as indefatigably - spread higher learning outside the college walls for the working classes, and inside them for women.
Morley's mission lives on in the London college that bears his name. There are seven other such surviving "abnormals": Ruskin College, the Working Men's College, the City Lit, the Workers' Educational Association, Fircroft Adult Residential College, the Northern College and Hillcroft College.
These institutions were all founded as 19th or early 20th-century philanthropic initiatives. Their mission statements contain sentiments such as "Force for Good" (City Lit), "Education for the Disadvantaged" (Ruskin) and "Serious Liberal Education" (WEA). They each have distinctly different ideas of their social role. Hillcroft, for example, "is a national residential college that aims to help women who have faced educational or social disadvantages to progress into higher education". The Mary Ward Centre, by contrast, is walk-in, as fluid in its outreach as the central London population swirling about it.
These institutions were given protected status, with the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority in 1992, as SDIs (specially designated institutions). The Government, by the Education Act of that year, was "abjured" from doing anything that would "damage the distinctness of their offerings".
What they offer, to dip into the 2007-08 catalogue of the Mary Ward Centre, are such imaginative courses as "over-60s' computing", child-care tuition, an accredited philosophy course and a battery of English-as-a-foreign-language courses - all integrated into the kind of advice services otherwise to be found in the Citizens' Advice Bureau or the old-fashioned public library.
The "abnormals" are, nonetheless, feeling a distinct chill from Whitehall. As the 2007-08 Mary Ward brochure apologetically announces: "We have had to raise fees this year because government policy dictates we must. Adult education of the type Mary Ward offers is not a government priority."
New Labour has an instinctive demographic bias towards the young. Investing, that is, in the future. It is economically rational: the tax pound spent on kindergarten or primary-school headstart schemes will be paid back for half a century. The tax pound invested in "over-60s"? Do the maths.
But it's unfair. As Philip Meaden, principal of Morley, points out, the big change over the past century "has been in the number of retired people - 15 per cent now aged 60-plus: in the 1890s, less than 1 per cent". Put another way, the elderly are what the working poor in Somerstown were when Mrs Ward established her settlement in 1894: a sizeable minority for whom something really ought to be done.
The government policy on SDIs is elsewhere short-sighted. In 2007, as last year's Mary Ward brochure complained, "the Government has decided to start charging for 'English for Speakers of Other Languages' and to remove all entitlement to education from asylum seekers". Immigration is a hot issue. One way to foster smooth assimilation is the budget-price educational programmes the SDIs can no longer afford to run.
There is, some believe, an unstated government prejudice against the "lady with the fur hat" signing up for courses to while away a well-heeled middle class existence. In fact, most SDI courses are directed towards those who have slipped through the net. As the price of those courses creeps above £70, they will, alas, keep slipping.
Every year, these institutions face reductions in their government subsidy, with the implication that the slack should either be taken up by fees or, if students can't pay their way, their time has passed. It's unfair and wrong. Their "distinctness" should be preserved.
John Sutherland is emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of English at University College London.