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Is It Time To Abolish The University?

In the 1960s, around five per cent of the population went to university. For those that did, the experience was transformative. Bright working-class youths, whose opportunities were limited by their socio-economic lot, were provided a leg-up and an opportunity to flourish.

In the 2020s, it seems the inverse is true. Around 35 per cent of the population go to university. Those that do often don’t seem to gain from the experience. Many work menial desk-jobs that don’t obviously require university degrees. Today, a massive 36 per cent of the UK are overqualified for their jobs.

Instead of a route to meritocratic advancement of the brightest few, only top courses at top universities pay dividends. And on the whole, it's private school kids — who pay for the best teaching in smaller classes  and who have the best tools to game exams, interviews, and UCAS — that get places on these courses. 

For many, it's reason to give up all faith in the university system. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak complains of ‘Mickey Mouse Degrees’ which fail to teach students life skills or applicable technical knowledge, yet saddle students with tuition fees. Others, like Geoff Norcott, a comedian and political commentator, ask whether students might be better off going straight into work. In Is University Really Worth it?, Norcott rues the opportunity cost of not heading straight into apprenticeship programmes rather than choosing university.

More generally, old farts have championed a right-wing crusade against the university system. Complaints that universities do little more than indoctrinate students at the cost of their professional life abound. Ross Clark of The Spectator complains of striking lecturers and students learning very little. Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, meanwhile, grumbles how Critical Race Theory warps minds without providing students the ability to think critically.

And maybe — just maybe — there’s some truth here. It might be a bit hasty to get rid of universities altogether, but these predominantly right-wing voices pick up on something important.

Universities have never just been small, technical institutions that provide specialised forms of training to a select few. Historically, but also presently, they’ve also been instruments of socialisation and politicisation, transforming the horizons of those who go.

As much to do with teaching as with providing a shared experience, university originally socialised a narrow elite who looked down upon people they saw as homogenised and uneducated. For this narrow elite, drawn from the upper and middle classes, the right to rule or speak authoritatively was backed up by a credential — hiding class privilege behind a paper certificate.  

With the introduction of students from across all ranges of social backgrounds into the university, the expectation was that this would change. The hope was that as those who grew up differently began to attend, more egalitarian demands and outlooks would be integrated into the university; that the university would become less elitist, snobby and arrogant.

But it hasn’t. Instead, it’s the elite that’s grown — expanding to a good third of the population. Those with a university degree continue to rule the rest. Brought together by a shared set of values and life-experiences, they exert dominance over those without one.

Importantly, even though the economic picture might be complicated — a plumber or HGV driver might make more than a middle manager — the political picture is less so. Those with degrees have the authority to define, the confidence to understand, and generally treat those without degrees with overwhelming condensation.

The credentialised minority rule through a recognition that their values are superior, and that other views are somehow deficient. The result: an unwillingness to compromise, listen or discuss the real concerns of the ordinary working so-called ‘citizen’. Instead, we see division and mutual incomprehension; where values are asserted through force, rather than deemed necessary to discuss.

The rancid populism and division of much of Europe thus stems in part from the social effect that the university has on society. It may be time to reconsider its place.

Illustration by: Calum Mayor

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