The Costly New Idea of a University | Standpoint

The Costly New Idea of a University, JONATHAN BATE, December 2010

What is the right way to fund our universities? It is appropriate to pay for healthcare and school education out of general taxation because everyone is entitled to benefit from them?…

The proportion of young people going into higher education has risen at an astonishing rate, especially among women. In the early 1960s only about five per cent of the population went to university. Even when Oxford graduate Margaret Thatcher came to power, only ten per cent of women were benefiting from higher education. By the time John Major turned the polytechnics into universities, that figure had doubled. In the academic year 2008-09, 51 per cent of female school leavers entered higher education, up from 49 per cent the previous year. The overall figure also showed an all-time high, with 45 per cent going to university, including 40 per cent of young men. A system originally designed for a small elite was now serving half the nation, at huge cost. ..

Considered as an attempt to answer these demands, the Browne Report is a lean and coherent piece of work. Its premise is that the students who benefit from higher education should make a substantial retrospective contribution towards the cost of it. Why should the binman and the dinner lady subsidise the cost of educating the lawyer and the surgeon?…

The debate between those who look for the “economic impact” of universities through the prioritisation of science and engineering, collaboration with business, the development of spin-out companies and so forth, and those who appeal to the pursuit of knowledge as a civilising virtue in itself replicates a dichotomy identified by John Stuart Mill in the early Victorian era, in his pair of essays on Jeremy Bentham (written in 1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840). Mill contended that Bentham and Coleridge were the two “great seminal minds” of the age. Britain, he proposed, was indebted to them “not only for the greater part of the important ideas which have been thrown into circulation among its thinking men in their time, but for a revolution in its general modes of thought and investigation”. Bentham and Coleridge, he argued,

were destined to renew a lesson given to mankind by every age, and always disregarded — to show that speculative philosophy, which to the superficial appears a thing so remote from the business of life and the outward interests of men, is in reality the thing on earth which most influences them, and in the long run overbears every other influence save those which it must itself obey. The writers of whom we speak have never been read by the multitude; except for the more slight of their works, their readers have been few: but they have been the teachers of the teachers; there is hardly to be found in England an individual of any importance in the world of mind, who (whatever opinions he may have afterwards adopted) did not first learn to think from one of these two…

A certain smaller number were to remain at the fountain-heads of the humanities, in cultivating and enlarging the knowledge already possessed, and in watching over the interests of physical and moral science; being likewise the instructors of such as constituted, or were to constitute, the remaining more numerous classes of the order…

University courses in the humanities are of value to the state if and when they sustain a Coleridgean clerisy.

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