David Aaronovitch: Everyone should want a degree

'But where are the articles about college in "The Sun"? Where, on prime-time telly, are the great courses and fab universities?'

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When they threw me out of Oxford a couple of centuries ago – after just two terms of tutorials in towers and colds caught in freezing bathrooms – the University of Manchester was kind enough to offer me a place reading history. I repaid them by appearing on the Manchester team for the 1975 series of
University Challenge. The four of us were elected at a Union General Meeting, and were chosen for our political affiliations (the other three were anarchists and I was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain) and our pledge to bring this programme the ridicule that its elitism deserved.

When they threw me out of Oxford a couple of centuries ago – after just two terms of tutorials in towers and colds caught in freezing bathrooms – the University of Manchester was kind enough to offer me a place reading history. I repaid them by appearing on the Manchester team for the 1975 series of University Challenge. The four of us were elected at a Union General Meeting, and were chosen for our political affiliations (the other three were anarchists and I was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain) and our pledge to bring this programme the ridicule that its elitism deserved.

We were pretty successful. The producers claimed that it was the worst show ever recorded, and that was good enough for us. My doubts began the day after the recording when the Manchester Evening News carried the team's photograph on its letters page, under the headline "Manchester team a disgrace". Letter after letter damned us for our incivility and lack of civic pride. Over the years, wrote one reader, the university had eaten up much of the surrounding area, knocking down streets and shops to build sports facilities that local people could not use, and flats they could not live in. Was it too much to expect, asked another, that these middle-class interlopers should come here and then try at least to earn a good name for the city?

I had just never thought of it that way before. Interloper? Wasn't I at university because I had earned the right to be there? Why should I be grateful? In 1962 the Robbins report had established the principle that anyone should receive higher education who was qualified and able to do so. If you got good enough A-level results then you got a place and the state would pay your fees and, subject to a means test, would give you a maintenance grant too. This was not huge, but was usually big enough to stop you having to work your way through college. And quite right too. Who needed the distraction of a bar job when they had three history essays to write every single term?

Still, these letters alerted me to the world out there of people who hadn't gone to university, whose children probably wouldn't go either, but who were paying taxes so that I could. The answer, obviously, was to make sure that more kids from poorer, or (since my family was actually quite poor) from less culturally attuned backgrounds went to university. What we needed was access to higher education for the many, not just the few. Higher education should become less elitist and should expand enormously.

But we in the middle classes didn't want to lose out in the process. In 1982 the author of The Strategy of Equality, Julian Legrand, wrote that "almost all public expenditure on the social services in Britain benefits the better off to a greater extent than the poor". This was truer in higher education than practically anywhere else. Middle-class kids got given money and were subsidised by the state so that they could qualify in order to get better-paid jobs. That only ended when the Labour government introduced fees for wealthier students. This measure, and the increases in stamp duty for the most expensive house purchases, have been the two most genuinely redistributive acts of Mr Blair's administration.

And, in the case of fees, one of the most unpopular. Nick Timmins, in his book The Five Giants, quotes the American commentator George Will as saying that "hell hath no fury like the middle classes when its subsidies are at issue". This fury is the more potent when it can be dressed up as somehow altruistic. It is not, of course, with the middle classes that the Lib Dems sympathise when opposing fees. Lord no! It is with the poor, who – though they do not pay themselves – are somehow put off by the prospect of others paying. The campaign seems to have worked. A month ago the Prime Minister suggested that the issue of fees would be looked at again.

So when Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, made a "land-mark" speech yesterday about access to higher education, it was a surprise to some that fees weren't mentioned. "None of us," she argued, "can defend the position where five times as many young people from professional backgrounds enter higher education compared with those from unskilled and manual backgrounds". But she clearly was not buying the economic argument at all. Instead she seemed to be arguing that the problem was cultural and institutional. In her most purple phrase she said that the middle classes regarded higher education, wrongly, as their "birthright".

If it's not, then what's the point of being middle class? But actually, until fairly recently, even most middle-class kids didn't go to university. Some 7 per cent of 18-year-olds went in 1962, rising to 15 per cent by 1989, and 31 per cent by 1993. Ms Morris has just announced that her target is 50 per cent by 2010. With 75 per cent of middle-class children already going to college, it is working-class kids who must be drawn into the universities. And although just about everyone (except Chris Woodhead) now agrees with this, the way to achieve it is not at all clear.

In many ways Ms Morris's speech was quite threatening. "None of us," she warned the colleges, "wants unnecessarily burdensome arrangements, but that places a clear responsibility on institutions to ensure their internal processes are robust". In other words, if your courses aren't good enough, and you don't get the right students in the right numbers, expect a hard time. Brrr. She doesn't talk like that to teachers any more. She went on: "Universities need to grow demand for places."

But how is this reaching out to be done? Why don't working-class kids go to college? If it's not money (and I don't really think that it is, though we could all cite anecdotal evidence), is it culture? And if so, whose?

The theatre has worried away at this one for decades. It has examined its advertising, its buildings, its discourse, begun partnerships with schools, instituted education programmes and all the rest. It hasn't worked in changing the audience profile, probably because the one thing it hasn't considered is whether it isn't time to stop showing plays. Plays are the problem. Universities too could do a great deal about their language. Their discourse is stuffed with faculties, common rooms, departmental meetings, seminars, dons, honours degrees and a thousand other idiosyncrasies. It is also true that their outreach work could be more systematic and less the poor relation of the university's PR output. At the same time it is still fair to ask whether enough of the courses are as relevant or as well taught as they could be.

Surely, however, another problem lies in the culture of the would-be students themselves. Going to college was as natural to me as reading broad-sheet papers. But where are the articles about college in The Sun or The Mirror? Where, on prime-time telly, are the stories of great courses and fabulous teachers at university? University Challenge should be on BBC1, and you should be able to win £1m on it. That'd change things.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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