Out of the Ivory Tower

By Scott, Peter | New Statesman (1996), November 13, 1998 | Go to article overview

Out of the Ivory Tower


Scott, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Peter Scott argues that universities can meet the real challenge for lifelong learning: to woo Middle England, not the socially excluded

The route along which generations of Oxford dons and undergraduates have walked from the railway station to Carfax took them first past an old wooden building, latterly a tyre shop but originally the terminus of a rival line long squeezed out of business by a predatory Great Western Railway. Around and behind the building was a cindery car-park. But no longer, because this is where the University of Oxford's new Business School is rapidly rising from its foundations.

A few yards further on, the traveller passes Nuffield College, opposite the prison. Nuffield's golden Cotswold stone cannot conceal its modernity, its origins in mass manufacturing and the motor car and its commitment to the novelties of social science. All over Oxford, in fact, there is novelty, although often hidden beneath medieval exteriors or Victorian gothic extravagance. Outwardly, it is still the university half-celebrated and half-castigated by Matthew Arnold as the home of dreaming spires and lost causes; inwardly it is anything but.

Most universities are deceptive. They pretend to an antiquity that almost none can truly claim and, even in the case of the few genuine antiques (like Oxford), is profoundly misleading. More than half of Britain's universities have been founded since 1960. At the turn of the century there were barely a dozen and, apart from Oxford and Cambridge, most, in size and ethos, were more like small-town grammar schools than today's universities.

Even Cardinal Newman's "idea of a university" was in reality an idealised vision that did not exist even in the middle of the 19th century and has never been subsequently established.

Those who argue that the university is too traditional, too rigid and too elitist to play its part in realising the government's lifelong learning ambitions are like Newman - although what he applauded they deplore. But, good or bad, it is a myth. The expansion of universities and colleges in the past 20 years, from less than half a million students to 1.7 million, has been one of the most dramatic episodes in Britain's educational history; it has brought us to the brink of "the knowledge society".

The same expansion has taken higher education even further away from Newman's ideal. It has also moved it on from Benjamin Jowett's more realistic idea of the university as forcing house for an activist, public-service, professional elite, which held sway well into the 1960s. The modern university, in contrast, is an almost open institution; in many subjects it has ceased to be seriously selective. It is also pluralist; almost anything goes. Although some writers still try to define what is special about the university, arguing that its commitment to critical learning perhaps distinguishes it from the rest of education, most have given up. After all, we now have a British Aerospace Virtual University and even a University for Industry.

Yet the old elitist image lives on, not least perhaps in the minds of ministers. They see further education, not higher education, as the engine of lifelong learning. Of the half-million extra places they plan to provide in post-school education over the next three years, the bulk will be in further education colleges. FE also did much better out of the comprehensive spending review than the universities, more evidence of the Department for Education and Employment's priorities (although it is only fair to say that the colleges are not funded as well as the universities).

There seem to be two reasons for this reluctance to accept that higher education has a crucial role to play in lifelong learning. First, ministers, to the extent that they are still influenced by Thatcherite measures of success, are obsessed by quantitative targets. Hitting targets is essential for successful spin-doctoring; it makes great headlines. …

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