Why university is a journey too far

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The A-level results out on Thursday signal the beginning of Britain's great teenage transhumance. Education's rite of passage is what it literally is - the passage of parental cars and vans up and down the motorways; a welter of trunks, new crockery, duvet covers, and instructions on how to use a washing machine.

But for what? No official report, at least none written during the past 35 years, says that studying away from home is sufficiently beneficial to justify its huge cost to the nation. No closet eugenicist says that translating hundreds of Londoners to Sheffield to have sex there for three years (not with Sheffielders, since only 5 per cent of Sheffield University's BA students come from the city) does anything for the gene pool.

Asian restaurateurs and provincial suppliers of little white pills love it. But what public purposes are served by this annual migration of Middle England's youth? You may say that the migration bonds north and south. Within six weeks, it is true that thousands of young southerners will be migrating north. Some will join that huge student colony - 60,000 strong - in Manchester. Others will contribute towards the millions in uncovenanted regional aid that higher education pays Yorkshire and Humberside. And the student train moves the other way, too, claiming the extra grants and loans available to London students, swelling the capital's disproportionate share of university revenues.

Should 18-year-olds pitch out of the parental nest and go and live by themselves? That's a private matter. What is public is whether the state should subsidise the expensive business of self-discovery for a fraction of the 18-year-old cohort. Once upon a time (the early Sixties, in fact) a government committee said campuses and cloisters were places where you acquired manners and social confidence, even (whisper it, with the student revolution about to begin) a moral sense.

That answer was couched in terms of a university system to which only the offspring of the middle classes and a smattering of able working- class youth were admitted.

Modern mass universities have given up the ghost of moral betterment. Though meagre, government student support pays enough for late-teenagers to leave home to live, in their first year, in communal blocks, then get big city flats while enjoying the "student experience". This consists of a mixture of Es, beer, sex, lectures, and minimal intellectual engagement, plus, for those with less well-off parents, part-time jobs. Of course some students do voluntary work in poor neighbourhoods; of course not all students are drug-ingesting slobs. The question is not whether the experience is edifying, but whether the taxpayer should support it as well as the cost of teaching. Officialdom, including the Dearing Committee, has ducked the issue.

Some colleges, especially the former polytechnics, never had national catchments. Take the University of East London (formerly the North East London Polytechnic), four out of every five of whose students come from Greater London or the Home Counties area. Of them, three-quarters come from the neighbourhood. Ilford Asian families are very keen to see their daughter return home every night.

Are nine-to-five students going to do any worse? (This is smugly insinuated by the campus universities.) A Leeds University professor tells me: "Students who live at home don't integrate; it limits the range of experience they are subjected to; they are not as rounded as students." So, I ask, does that make them worse physicists or historians?

The evidence from Glasgow says: of course not. Some 71 per cent of the University of Glasgow's undergraduates are Scots and nearly half of them come from greater Glasgow. Its academic averages do not seem to suffer as a result. Ditto Strathclyde, where the home-town component is even greater.

"They have much greater opportunities for sharing discourse, creating a kind of culture" - this from the registrar of the University of York, with ducks quacking in the background on his architect-designed campus. That kind of vague ambition was certainly in the minds of the founders of the Shakespearian seven (Sussex, Warwick, Kent etc) - believing that life among Basil Spence buildings would somehow make better scholars. It is a load of nonsense - as generations of urbane graduates from the urban academic factories have proved.

Indeed, say the great "civic" universities of the North and Midlands, a reason for 18-year-olds to leave home is that they get the chance to experience the grit - sorry, the varied urban scene - in Liverpool and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Parents, send your children to Bradford for (official spokesperson) "a vibrant, multicultural city".

Manchester University (one of the several institutions that make up a multi-million-pound higher education industry in the North-west) deliberately pitches its club and music scene to southerners. Some 2,700 of Manchester's undergrads come from the South-east and there is said to be a "huge retention" of them on graduation, especially in the local leisure industry. That is fine, but should it be the object of public policy to invigorate the indie music scene in Ardwick?

A couple of years ago the Higher Education Funding Council measured grants and fees per head of population and found that London ended up with more than twice the amount of university money flowing to the South-west (few universities) or even the West Midlands. Another region that does conspicuously well is Yorkshire and Humberside - all those callow southerners who find themselves contemplating the flow of the Humber on the dockside at Hull.

Of course, individuals may benefit by leaving home to study - where would the modern British novel be without that trope? But behind the decision to wave Mum and Dad goodbye lies an unwarranted subsidy. The Government's post-Dearing proposals for student finance are a step in the right direction. Everyone will have to borrow, so focusing available money on the education rather than the lifestyle.

Yes, university graduates are in general more tolerant, more liberal, but surely that has to do with the fact of study, not with the possibility of rubbing shoulders with southerners. Besides, university entrance is still heavily conditioned by social origin. Unfashionable though the word now is, it is class that determines who goes where to study what. Sending the daughters of the well-off of Kent to spend three years in a flat in Headingley mixing with students from a similar background does little to aerate British society. Nor does sending them to the superior boarding- school experience offered, say, at Exeter or Durham.

And if the experience did count: wouldn't the benefit be so much greater for 18-year-olds from Page Moss in Knowsley, or Bransholme estate in Hull? Break them out of their culture and dead expectations by giving them the chance to live away from home. That really would give the 18-year-old transmigration some point.