Don’t abandon the idea of a university

It’s a pity Simon Jenkins doesn’t run his own blog as ace controversialist as well as Chair of the National Trust. This champion of that oxymoron the civilising market is in fine form today, denouncing in a dozen ways in as many paragraphs not only the UK government’s proposed university settlement but  the thinking behind it and the basic concept of what’s being financed:

There is not an arts course invented that could not be completed in 18 months, and probably not a science one. As for most postgraduate degrees and doctorates, they are plain indulgences.

I was nodding vigorously by the time I got to this sentence, so dazzled was I by the style – insistent yet persuasive, polemical yet reasonable, rooted in history yet looking to real life and the future. Then I stopped short as I spotted a basic flaw in the case.

It is the time needed for learning not for teaching that stretches the experience to about three years. There is simply no way even the most conscientious student can absorb all the reading (or experiments) necessary to get an average degree in 18 months. This will provoke the usual cynicism about all the time taken to get drunk, to riot in the Holy land etc, but that’s a diversion. The teaching checks out the reading and requires a spread of time.

I too am suspicious of the value of much research – not that most of us are any judge – but here again, it’s often not the research itself that counts but the discipline acquired that may lead on to more productive work. Finally, if you must be cynical, isn’t it an improvement  for students and post grads to have to pay back most of the bill for their  years of unproductive employment rather than “live off the State?”

In the end, a limited market in universities will assert itself and the numbers will probably fall in favour of more unashamedly vocational training. This may be no bad thing, but financial austerity is no excuse for abandoning the idea of a university.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London