Simon Szreter, professor of history and public policy at the University of Cambridge, was speaking last night in the last of a series of lectures on the “idea of a university” at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities.
An earlier lecture by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, had to be abandoned after students disrupted it to protest against the coalition’s reforms.
Professor Szreter said competition, choice and access are “terms of linguistic stealth, which closely mimic - but which are in fact designed to destroy - a triad of true values which should inform government policy to enable universities to flourish”.
Universities depend on a form of healthy rivalry, he continued, whereby fellow scholars “engaged in a rationally critical but ultimately collaborative process of examining each other’s work in order to exclude error and to promote genuine insight and originality”. This had nothing at all to do with “the competition that is believed by economists to be a helpful characterization of the operation of markets in efficiently pricing goods and services in the world of commerce and exchange”.
In the same way, Professor Szreter claimed that the mantra of “choice” could only lead to less diversity, since “the White Paper places its faith in the hands of youngsters to determine the disciplinary, sub-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary shape of the nation’s future higher education system”, even though “prospective students can only be expected to encounter the secondary school forms of a rather restricted range of the many disciplines that enrich the wide, growing and diversifying range of human intellectual endeavours that we pursue in higher education institutions”.
Nor was “access” a meaningful ideal, in Professor Szreter’s view, unless “underpinned by a policy of equality of opportunity in wider education provision”.
Universities on their own could do little in a context where “for three decades inequality of incomes has been relentlessly rising, cheered on by a right-wing press, whose influence over the political choices made in No10 Downing Street has earlier this year been candidly acknowledged by the leaders of both main parties, once they found it vital to distance themselves from Mr Murdoch after the phone-hacking scandals”.
In concluding his case for rivalry, diversity and equality of opportunity, rather than the false gods of competition, choice and access, Professor Szreter noted that all three required university autonomy, a topic he said was notably absent from “a White Paper which simply does not understand what universities are, nor their enormous public benefit”.