Magazine article The Spectator

Let's Be Elitist

Magazine article The Spectator

Let's Be Elitist

Article excerpt

If the Prime Minister really wants some of that 'blue sky thinking' of which he is so fond, and for which he bizarrely relies on the utterly discredited figure of John Birt, he would do well to take the 'up train' to Oxford and pop into the Warden's lodgings at New College. From the Warden, Alan Ryan, he would be sure to hear plenty of candid words. Not comforting ones, necessarily; for Ryan, a leading theorist on politics and education and an authority on John Stuart Mill, is not known for mincing his words.

'I by and large hold the view that all governments should be shouted at,' he says, 'on the grounds that power is extremely corrupting.' During the Laura Spence affair he declared, 'In my opinion Gordon Brown is a fibber and a hypocrite and a bully. He was talking out of his backside, and that's a bad thing for a government minister to do.'

For a bold solution to the problems of education, however, Ryan is Tony Blair's man. (Did not Mr Blair tell us that we are 'best' when we are at our 'boldest'?) He advocates an unashamedly elitist university system and the abolition of state schools, but arrives at his position from the kind of liberal and social democratic view that a Labour government ought at least to be willing to consider.

Ryan identifies the failure to distinguish between the types of education offered after the enormous expansion of the universities as the problem. 'Margaret Hodge said wasn't it very snobbish to say that not all universities provide exactly the same education. But it's not merely not snobbish, it's the brutal fact about the world. An awful lot of what passes for higher education nowadays consists of nine hours of academic work per week, and then 14-week-long vacations in which the students stack shelves at Sainsbury's. It's crazy.'

His answer is a highly stepped system where most colleges would offer eight terms spread over two years, with no long vacations, and in which students would continue normal jobs and attend colleges locally. Colleges would charge their own fees, with means-testing to help students from lower-income backgrounds. Government funding would be much more steeply graded in favour of the elite universities, as happens with the grandes écoles in France. Not only government, but many of today's students, he says, are getting a 'bad bargain' out of a university education. The cost in debts and in foregone wages is so high that a cheaper version should be offered; or they should not be going to university at all.

In what Ryan calls the 'J.S. Mill alternative' to the current system, all state schools, other than those that served very particular needs, would be abolished. 'I would like there to be exemplary facilities for, say, hot-shot violinists, because that would probably be so expensive to provide that you couldn't imagine parents coughing up for them. But otherwise the parents and the providers should get together to produce schools, charge for them, means-test for them, which the government would fund, just to get a variety of alternative visions of what a school might be. Then see what happens.'

In practice, I suggest, this would mean squeezing the middle classes. Doesn't it smack rather unpleasantly of the class warrior? 'I think there are fairly large streaks of class warfare about me,' says Ryan. 'On the whole, the people who say "let us not talk about the class war" tend to be the people who are doing quite nicely out of it. One should occasionally remind people that there is such a thing as social class.'

Middle-class parents, thinks Ryan, have got away with not paying their share for far too long. …

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