The word university comes from the same root as universe and universal. But universities have never been universal, nor were they intended to be, despite the utopian promise of the name. Universities are places that make distinctions. They confer degrees, and grades, they discriminate, in the old sense of the word: they make judgements in the aim of identifying excellence.
If this doesn't sound very democratic, that's because it isn't. But that doesn't make universities inherently elitist – if that word means the protection and justification of class privilege by the unfair exclusion of others – only historically. The problem British universities face is how to balance a principle of fairness against a principle of excellence.
Oh, yes, and how to pay for it.
The situation now is rather as if for centuries the coaches of Britain's Olympic squads had selected the sons of their mates to play on their teams; eventually they reluctantly allowed the daughters of their mates; and for a long time, no matter how fast or strong you were, you weren't allowed in. Furthermore, you weren't offered the training from the beginning that would enable you to develop your natural talents. Now everyone else is suspicious and resentful of what clearly seems a rigged game, and arguing that everyone should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. But that defeats the purpose of the Olympics, which is to promote excellence. Everyone should be allowed to play the game, but not everyone can be an Olympic athlete.
Not everyone is suited for higher education as it is currently practised in the UK. That's because higher education in this country was never designed for a broad spectrum of society. The US and Canada, by contrast, have been working to widen access to universities for several generations, and they do so by employing a similar idea of "the liberal arts" education. The idea of a liberal arts education is that it emphasises breadth of learning, well-roundedness, over depth and specialisation. Neither approach is inherently superior; they both have their benefits and their disadvantages. But they aren't interchangeable.
Britain's university system currently operates under the following principles: 50 per cent of students have the right to higher education at elite universities: this is a little like saying that 50 per cent of footballers have the right to play for Chelsea. It also presumes that this 50 per cent needs to know at the age of 15 what they want to do for the rest of their lives, because that is what they should study at university, as vocational training. When they finish their degree, they are entitled to a job in that subject. If any of these implicit promises are broken, they are entitled to feel very, very aggrieved; and they are always already entitled to be aggrieved about paying for any of it.
The question is this: what is higher education for? I know a lot of angry parents and employers who would like a straight answer to this question. Is it vocational training, to get a better job? Is it training to become an academic? Is it a glorified party and arrested adolescence, the chance to defer adult responsibilities a little longer? Is it to provide access to power and privilege? Is it a pernicious defense of a two-tier society, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? Or is it a resource for business, science, and industry, an accumulation of intellectual and research capital for the nation to exploit?
Currently it can be any and all of these things. But these definitions are part of the problem, because they all put education at the service of industry. No one doubts the importance of the economy, but part of the reason we're in the mess we're in is because we have such a narrow, utilitarian view of education. Current educational policy is compounding this by insisting that maths and science, to promote industry, should be funded at the expense of the humanities: as Einstein is supposed to have said, not everything that counts can be counted. Money is not the only measure of value.
Education is not merely a means to an instrumentalist end: it is an end in itself. Education is beneficial for the same reasons that ignorance is dangerous. In the last US election, Americans were faced with a stark choice between two candidates who in many ways embodied ignorance versus education, and the world applauded when America chose education. Britain now needs to choose education in a different way: it needs to accept the value of advanced education for all, figure out an equitable way of paying for it, which probably includes individuals paying for what will, in the end, generally improve their opportunities in life, and it needs to broaden its definition of higher education, to be inclusive enough, paradoxically, to tolerate excellence, and not confuse it with elitism.
Sarah Churchwell is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of East AngliaReuse content