Director of the Institute of Ideas launches conference-season attack on university education that she 'wouldn't give to the dog'. Rebecca Attwood reports.
Working-class students are being "conned" into thinking they are getting a university education, the Labour Party conference heard.
At a Labour fringe debate last week, Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, launched a scathing attack on the value of today's degrees.
The former lecturer argued that as more and more young people go to university, fewer courses are forcing students to stretch themselves intellectually.
"I happen to think the working class deserve the best of Eton, the best of Oxbridge," she told the meeting on "Higher Education: A Public Service?" organised by the Smith Institute, Reform and the Russell Group of 20 research led universities.
But Ms Fox said that "now that everyone's going to university" there is "less of the 'hoi polloi' getting a decent university education - they just happen to be sitting in a building with university on the front of it for three years".
Ms Fox said that she did not want working-class people to be told they were getting a university education "when you wouldn't want to give it to the dog".
Universities are being asked to solve "a myriad of social and economic problems" - none of them centring on education - and are in danger of losing sight of their core mission, according to Ms Fox.
"Rather than the celebration of education as a valuable end... the talk is of universities being skills brokers, of making the economy more efficient, of making students more employable," she added.
Critics would, she said, inevitably accuse her of rehashing the "dumbing down" argument and being "boring and cliched", but she was fed up with being told that the concept of knowledge for its own sake was old-fashioned.
"When [former Education Secretary] Charles Clarke asked the question, 'Why should the state put money into the medieval concept of a community of scholars?' my answer was, 'Scholarship'. I actually happen to think that's quite important. I think that is the public good - not public service, I hate that notion," she said.
Universities should be ivory towers because the pursuit of knowledge had to be disinterested, she said.
"This is an ideal we should aspire to, and that is an ideal that is being dumped at the moment," she said. "Now the students are the masters who must be flattered. Any degree that attracts students, that is popular, can pass muster regardless of its intellectual merit," Ms Fox said.
However, the journalist David Aaronovitch hit out at "the incredible snobbery in parts of the media who would describe themselves as progressive" about "quasi-degree courses".
Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London, said there could be no doubt that universities were a public service.
Their role would become increasingly important in a world of fewer natural resources and knowledge-based economies, he said.
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, joked: "I'm glad that you concluded that universities are a public service because they are bloody expensive if they are not. If you'd come to the opposite conclusion, I think Alistair [Darling] would have asked for the money back."
He added: "I'm not trying to say that a Classics degree at a sought-after university is the same thing as a foundation degree in quarrying and mining." But, he said, both qualifications were equally valid.
Mr Denham said there had never been a time when universities had been more important to the future success of the country.
"Getting the university sector right is not just an issue for universities but for the whole of our society," he said.
The debate was also staged at the Conservatives' conference in Blackpool. Nick Bosanquet of Imperial College London said there was a "serious decline" in the role of universities in supplying independent scrutiny of the Government.