When did university become a factory?

What has happened to the places of free thought and experimentation, where minds expanded?

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Well done to all those who got the A-levels they needed to get into university, hopefully to study subjects they are passionate about. Though that, today, would be thought foolish or self-indulgent. I am seriously apprehensive about British universities. Government requirements have turned many institutions into malls that offer degrees as goods for “consumers” to choose and buy. Meanwhile, hedonism – hard drinking, drug-taking – gets worse, a brutal substitute for the profound gratification that was once felt by undergraduates and postgraduates.

Some of this can be blamed on the academic establishment, most on those who run the country – big business and politicians, fanatical proponents of Orwellian instrumentalism, the processing of young people into workers, strivers, androids. Propaganda for university education has a number attached: you will be this much more likely to get jobs, earn this much more than those simple-minded saddos who go for NVQs, live this much longer, etc.

Universities used to be gateways to infinite possibilities, places of free thought and experimentation where young men and women could define and find themselves, expand their maturing minds, argue, develop ideas and interrogate beliefs. Now they are expected to be maniacally focused on degrees that lead to jobs, the repayment of the fee loan and cut-throat competition. My own daughter is halfway through university and planning the future with a seriousness that will, of course, give her direction, but it is too much, too soon. Her youthful bloom has already faded. When I was her age, and at university in newly independent Uganda, a country that desperately needed engineers, agricultural experts, doctors and scientists, the only university in the country protected and promoted subjects that were of no immediate practical use. Subjects that, as one of my lecturers, Okot p’Bitek, an African poet, put it, produced “not the crops, but the flowers of a nation, its fragrances, and sometimes carriers of premonitions and admonitions”.

Thatcher expanded the sector but narrowed its purpose, and that political engineering has gone on since. Applications for science, technology, engineering and maths are up, while other courses and departments are dying for lack of student interest. Some 40 per cent of foreign language departments are to close. (Well, it’s a market now, like everything else in Britain). For years, there has been sneering in newspapers, on radio and TV, and in parliament, too, and actual pruning by governments of the so-called girlie “useless” degrees such as history of art, psychology and, of course, media studies. I am now a part-time professor in media studies at Middlesex University and work with the brightest, keenest of students and exceptional staff. Media literacy is a key component. I wish more Britons were media savvy. So, yes, bright young things – go and do media studies in order to be a better democrat. And foreign languages, without which international diplomacy and economic recovery are doomed. And politics, the pulse of a nation. And philosophy, art, drama, history. Do so because the powerful tell you not to.

In fact, the Minister for Universities, David Willetts, yesterday came out ostensibly against his own government’s relentless messages about “useful” degrees, rightly arguing that the arts and humanities are essential in any civilisation. Unfortunately, even in this counterintuitive and bold commentary, he felt obliged to repeat the degree-for-money mantra by holding up as role models 34 FTSE executives with such degrees. But well done, sir, for those noble thoughts and aspirations.

Our top universities have not delivered. Oxford and Cambridge still resist equity and fair access. Academic establishments in the Russell group are replicating the same institutional snobbery. Belfast grammar school boy Alastair Herron, with seven A stars, was rejected by Merton College, Oxford, but has been snapped up by Stanford, California. Showed the buggers, he did. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr, a comprehensive school kid from Cardiff who sneaked into Oxford, upbraids her alma mater and Cambridge for behaving like exclusive clubs for privately educated pupils. (Guilty admission: my kids were privately educated.) Surrey sends almost as many pupils to Oxbridge as the whole of Wales and the North-east combined. Outsiders who do get in often suffer. I met two Oxford postgrad students recently, an African-American woman and a working-class white man. Both are having a wretched time, shocked that Oxford is so indifferent to their education and needs.

More women than ever before are getting into universities; black Britons have dramatically upped their numbers; Chinese and Asian pupils are storming the citadels, and increasing (though still not enough) numbers of working-class white boys are opting for university, even though they are desperately worried about the high fees. All that is brilliant. But think of the narrowing options on offer, the re-established (now even celebrated) class system, university caste gradations and the elite in charge. Will university education be worth it? Yes, for most graduates of top universities. The rest will end up biddable and safe, growing crops, not flowers.

Twitter: @y_alibhai

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