Universities? Give Patten an A* for Honesty

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Universities? Give Patten an A* for Honesty


Byline: WILLIAM REES-MOGG

Would Roy Jenkins, as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, have handled the universities' dispute with the Government in the same way as his successor, Chris Patten? I doubt it.

They are very different personalities; Roy Jenkins erred, when he did err, on the side of diplomacy; Chris Patten errs on the side of outspokenness.

When he was Governor of Hong Kong, he was outspoken with the Chinese, whom everyone else handles with kid gloves. All he got in reply was a few choice Chinese insults; they nicknamed him 'Fat Pang'.

From the point of view of the rest of us, there was much to be said for Chris Patten's methods. It may not settle rows, but it does bring them out into the open. When we do not agree with Mr Patten's arguments, at least we know what they are.

Like other politicians, he may try to spin the ball in his favour, but his exertions, as he whirls his racket, show that something extraordinary is going on. And the row over universities is important.

We cannot, after all, disregard the universities. Some 42 per cent of British students now go to them, though not all complete their courses.

To a large extent, the universities have created the modern world.

Isaac Newton was a Cambridge man and more or less discovered how the universe worked. Ernest Rutherford was another Cambridge man and he split the atom.

We live in a world of accelerating scientific discovery, which has for the past two centuries been increasingly dominated by university research. In this, the British universities have been particularly successful. It used to be said that a single Cambridge College, Trinity, had won more Nobel prizes in science than the whole French nation. For all I know, that may still be true.

There are now about 2,000 major universities in the world, all of which owe something to the British model.

Of these, about 100 belong to a super league of great international universities. Britain has several of these premier universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and the London trio of Imperial College, University College and the London School of Economics.

There is a somewhat broader British classification of the 19 Russell Group universities, all of which are excellent. Our universities are something we can be proud of; they are also a major national asset.

The immediate issue, which drew Chris Patten on to the Today programme on Thursday and led him to give an aggressive interview to The Times on the same day, is one of access. Who should decide the proportion of state students that the leading universities should take?

Should it be the universities, or should it be some quango appointment by a Minister?

At the beginning of last week, it looked as though the Government was making a serious claim to control admissions. The proposal was that the new Office For Fair Access should impose a 77 per cent state school intake quota, and that there should be financial penalties for those universities that failed to meet it. Oxford, often the most verbal of universities, was up in arms.

Lord Beloff, the president of Trinity College, Oxford, warned the Government to 'take its tanks off' their lawns. That metaphor was first used by Harold Wilson, when Prime Minister, to warn off Hugh Scanlon, a Leftwing trade union leader.

Chris Patten took the same strong line. 'It's appalling . . . why do they want universities to lower their standards? …

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