Everybody can't be somebody: Lincoln Allison questions the wisdom of funnelling a third of school leavers into university

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The Independent Online
JUST over ten years ago the rumour was going round that government

cuts in higher education could not be met without the closure of a university or two. Since then, the proportion of young people going through higher education has risen from 13 per cent to 31 per cent and the number of universities, rather than going down by one or two, has increased by 41.

This is an astonishing 'U-turn', and it has been achieved with curiously little fuss. The then education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, and his advisers assumed that you could only expand, or even maintain, the university sector if you were prepared to pay for it, providing grants, library books and tutors at the rate of (roughly) one to every 10 students. They believed in the over-riding duty of governments to control their own expenditure, and their unstated assumptions were elitist; they took for granted that only a small minority of the population would ever go to university.

The expansion has been on an entirely different basis. Even in what were universities, the unit cost of providing an education is down by over 30 per cent in real terms and it is a great deal lower in the newer institutions. Instead of three years at an academic institution, with accommodation and subsistence provided, a specialist subject and finals at the end of it, there is now a vast and 'flexible' range of ways of getting a degree. You can do it part-time, or by '2 + 2' transfer from college; the majority of British universities now have credit accumulation systems that allow you to build up a degree from courses chosen and followed quite separately.

The current debate about higher education is about more, more cheaply, more quickly, less conventionally. It takes it for granted that elitism and tradition are bad in themselves - a strange assumption for Conservatives to make. The debate is about which system works best at achieving mass production without, supposedly, lowering standards.

The 'Great Debate', about what education is and how it relates to training, about what sort of higher education we want and what part universities should play in it, has never taken place. There are in fact very powerful arguments against mass higher education, and particularly against mass university education, that have never been considered. Perhaps the classic is that by the late Fred Hirsch in his Social Limits to Growth, written 18 years ago.

In Hirsch's terms, educational qualifications are 'positional goods'. Such goods are scarce by their nature and if you try to expand their supply, you merely create a kind of inflation and a new class of over-qualified, under-employed graduates. Worse, the system becomes extremely divisive. The degree acts as a threshold to employment rather than an aid to it 'as the average level of educational qualifications in the labour force rises, a kind of tax is imposed on those lacking such qualifications, while the bounty derived from possessing a given qualification is diminished'. The point was simply made by W S Gilbert - 'When everybody's somebody, nobody's anybody.'

The paradox of elitism can be summarised as this: if 3 per cent of the population are allowed to possess a qualification, the world is better off than if 30 per cent do. Not only does society possess the culture and skills attached to the qualification and get the benefit of them, but there is plenty of room for self-esteem and employment among the 97 per cent.

Exclusion from an elite as big as 30 per cent is far more damaging, however. Suddenly, no skills count without a degree and the world in which it was possible to become Prime Minister or chairman of British Airways without having a degree has vanished. The rhetoric of 'greater opportunities' is actually a lie: 30 per cent university education creates a 70 per cent underclass without corresponding benefits to the 30 per cent. I recently wrote, for the first time, a reference for an honours graduate to take up permanent employment as a postman. Only a few years ago, in the last flourishing of the elite university system, graduates (with quite ordinary degrees) were going into the City and out-earning their tutors within a year.

The difficulty in presenting the arguments against expansion of university education was that all other countries had, in appearance at least, more people at university. In Britain, the desire to send one's children to university had followed the aspiration to home ownership in its rapid shift from minority to overwhelming majority. The polytechnics desperately wanted to be universities and the teachers to be professors; the existing universities were constrained from opposing them by fear of being perceived as snobbish, by traditional solidarity and by ambition (bigger army, more colonels).

From being able to boast that we had no bad universities in Britain, we now have dozens that have been rated badly in the published surveys. Arguably, we have succeeded in imitating the worst faults of the Soviet and American systems of mass 'higher' education. Partly this is because we have tried to do it all too quickly and too cheaply. But it is also because the whole exercise is misconceived. There is no great evidence that mass higher education brings much macroeconomic benefit. As an end in itself it is a wonderful thing, but we are entitled to ask what proportion of the population has genuinely academic tastes and would prefer impoverished student life to doing something practical and remunerative.

The nightmare scenario, for those of us working in higher education in Britain, is that we are left to run a vast, badly funded system, where the old high standards and intellectual intimacy with students have been lost and our real role is as gatekeepers for entry into worthwhile employment.

Like most disasters, this is in some sense unavoidable, so great are the social and economic pressures behind it. People can't be sent back down the mines, because there are no mines. Can anything be saved? Only, I believe, if we can 'ring fence' an academy, a group of high-standard, purely academic institutions that can continue a tradition of excellence.

Opponents of this proposal will stigmatise it as a revival of the old 'binary' system. To which one must reply that we currently have a form of binary system - with the good-but- declining and the outright poor.

The author is reader in politics and international studies at the University of Warwick. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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