Misguided philistines in a relationship that is doomed to failure

While its aim to widen access is welcome, the strategy document Higher Ambitions is based on a fallacy, says Vernon Bogdanor

November 12, 2009

The relationship between government and universities has always been fraught with trouble. That is not because governments are in any special way malign. It flows from the very nature of the relationship.

Any nationalised industry, as the history of the railways or the National Health Service shows, institutionalises grumbling. The universities have a duty to complain, since otherwise resources will be shifted elsewhere; governments for their part feel that, if they supply the money, they are entitled to some say in what the academy is doing.

As government and universities have, since the 1960s, embraced each other more closely, the relationship has become, paradoxically, worse. Universities complain that governments encroach upon their autonomy by telling them how many students to accept, how they ought to be chosen and how much to charge. Governments complain that universities are making an insufficient contribution to the economic success of the nation. Lord Mandelson is only the latest in a long line of ministers to seek to square the circle.

In 2006, university fees in England and Wales were capped at £3,000 a year, although the cap will probably be removed after the next general election. Students are now paying customers and, rightly, demand better teaching. "As students who go into higher education pay more," Lord Mandelson told the Confederation of British Industry, "they will expect and are entitled to receive more."

The Government's strategy document, Higher Ambitions, seeks to ensure that students get a better deal from the academy. It proposes to reward excellence in teaching as well as research, and encourages the trend to appoint teaching professors. Ministers must also be assured that the universities are selecting the most able students. That means widening access, something not easy to achieve in a society in which ability is often constrained by poor schools and cultural disadvantage. It is for this reason that the document suggests that A levels are not always the most reliable indicators of merit, and that admissions tutors should also take account of factors such as school and background.

This proposal has aroused predictable howls of outrage from the populist press, yet its central fallacy is not as simple a quality as some imagine. The mathematician G.H. Hardy once told one of his colleagues at Trinity College, Cambridge, that he found it difficult to know who to vote for in fellowship elections. "I don't," his colleague replied. "I always vote for the best man." Perhaps admissions tutors should sympathise more with Professor Hardy and less with his colleague.

Experience at Harvard University shows that able students from disadvantaged backgrounds often get better results than those with higher qualifications from affluent ones; and there is evidence from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge that students from comprehensive schools perform better than their public school counterparts. Lord Mandelson is right to say that "selective" universities, by which, no doubt, he means primarily Oxford and Cambridge, need to do more to ensure that they are taking the ablest students, not merely those who have been well taught.

In its attempt to give more leverage to students, the strategy document is to be welcomed. Yet its central fallacy - reiterated endlessly by both Labour and Conservative governments for the past 50 years - is that the universities are "central to this country's economic performance". The truth is that those countries that have been economically successful since the Second World War, as Germany and Japan show, by no means have the most distinguished universities. There is, indeed, little evidence of a correlation between great universities and economic progress.

The strategy document is misguided, therefore, in thinking that businesses "need to be active partners with universities, not passive customers". Sadly, Universities UK, the body representing vice-chancellors, colludes with the Government in an attempt to show that the academy provides "value for money", proudly trumpeting that UK universities generated nearly £60 billion in 2007-08, and that every £1 million of public investment yielded a £1.35 million return. Any increase of knowledge no doubt benefits society and the economy, but it is philistine to believe it should be valued for this reason. In 1854, the Working Men's College, for many years the only independent body in Britain devoted to adult education, was founded. Its motto was: "We seek no greater good than education. We scorn to justify it save by itself." The philistinism of vice-chancellors and governments is an inevitable consequence of a relationship that cannot work. It is in the interests of both sides to end it, not least so that the academy can rediscover its true purpose.

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