Snobbery along the binary line

October 25, 1996

YOU publish Tony Hepburn's account of studying history at Cambridge in the same issue as Mary Warnock's attack on university status for the ex-polytechnics.

In the former, old-style university education is described with low lecture attendance, (I remember single-figure attendance in law and economics subjects nominally studied by a class of over 200 at Cambridge) and poorly qualified and inexperienced tutors. My experience was not of detailed feed-back for essays but generally of no essays set at all.

The "educational and scholarly" tradition certainly existed in the senior common room, but among undergraduates the attitude was "most of us are here to get a degree and have a bloody good time".

Many senior staff produced little research. The economics degree was so poorly planned that the first part of the Tripos included a general essay paper (1955). Double marking is still regarded as unnecessary at Cambridge.

When I taught at Bristol University, scholarly work was the exception rather than the rule in the law faculty and the quality of what was produced was undistinguished. There was certainly no tradition of scholarship. What took place as teaching is best not described. Law is perhaps exceptional.

What of Mary Warnock and the accompanying feature? In the first place, 1992 was the culmination of a movement which had consistently moved towards abolition of the binary line and was not the work of a single government nor prime minister.

I have recently returned to academic life after six years in the City. The effect of the abolition of the binary line has if anything created a more marked intellectual prejudice in the profession against the junior partners. I have given four conference papers since my return. Consistently I have discovered a note of surprise that someone from the ex-public sector institutions is capable of intelligent thought.

The professional body actually maintains separate membership for such folk (after many years of excluding us). I feel strongly that instead of merely reflecting the snobberies you might do a little more to attack them.

Anthony Beck 516 Fulham Palace Road London SW6.

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