For all Plato’s hopes, an education in philosophy is no guarantor of virtue. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s 2008 PhD from the LSE is an alleged kickback for a £1.5 million bung from the Gaddafi Foundation, now to be rejected, though it isn’t clear what’s going to happen to the £150,000 that’s already been spent. The LSE is also investigating allegations that the thesis was plagiarised, on the faintly ludicrous imputation that nobody in cahoots with the Mad Dog of Tripoli could knock out a competent discussion of John Rawls.
The episode casts university funding in a bleary light. The LSE is hardly the first institution to have banked funds from a dubious source. In the 1980s, Edinburgh bagged a million-pound grant from Arthur Koestler’s estate to endow a chair in parapsychology. York’s Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall was built with money from its eponymous donor, convicted of fraud and false accounting for his part in the Guinness-Distillers takeover scandal. He had dodged Office of Fair Trading regulations on insider trading by drawing on his friendship with Margaret Thatcher; he avoided jail only on a plea by counsel that a polyp in his urethra was malignant. Lyons’s knighthood was annulled in 1991, but the honour lives on in the concert hall’s moniker. Lyons panted on, polyp notwithstanding, till 2008, having been feted by the university on his 90th birthday in 2006.
More recently, London Metropolitan got into deep doo-doo with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) when it was found to have overstated its student numbers to increase the size of its block grant. The vice chancellor, Brian Roper, who had earlier apologised to China for awarding the Dalai Lama an honorary degree, resigned along with most of the university’s board of governors. Hefce is clawing back some £36 million from London Met, which has already axed more than three hundred jobs.
Corporate governance at London Met seems to have been virtuosically bad, but the episode highlights the contortionism that government has required of universities in recent years. Among Tony Blair’s follies was, in 1999, to ‘set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century’ (the current figure is 45 per cent). It only later dawned on the government that this exercise in ‘widening access’ would cost it big bucks, since university funding was calculated according to student numbers. So they put a cap on admissions. With the Browne report, the government has managed to triangulate the square, since the block teaching grant for humanities and social sciences is being nixed.
It’s easier to blame the universities than those whose policies they haplessly implement. So the universities, ‘bastions of elitism and privilege’, find themselves bashed about access (nothing, of course, about fee-paying schools, which educate only 7 per cent of children but nearly half Oxbridge’s intake). Given that few students will be able to meet fees of £7000-odd per annum up front, the loan book will be a big asset on the public balance sheet, which the government plans to sell. Liabilities were transferred from banks’ balance sheets onto the public accounts because of the financial crisis; student loans will transfer public debt to individuals. If the government sells the loan book as bonds to financial institutions, the banks will have offloaded their liabilities and acquired income-earning assets.
The rationale, such as it was, behind Blair’s ukase was economic: the global correlation between high rates of enrolment in tertiary education and high per capita GDP. What Blair ignored in 1999, however, was the high intake of science and technology students in the then-vaunted Pacific Rim economies. And the Browne wheeze will save the government money only if enough of the students coughing up north of £6000 a year opt for philosophy or Barry Manilow studies rather than engineering or medicine, which the government will still fund – in other words, only if enrolment sustains the arts/science imbalance whose correction might have provided the economic justification for Blair’s target.
Few politicians have read Rawls’s Theory of Justice, which advocates a system of equal opportunities for all. One who has is David Willetts, the universities and science minister. Willetts plans to allow extra places for anyone with £7000 a year in loose change who can pay their fees on the nail. That way the government can keep up the numbers of students without having to pay for them. It will count as widening access, of course, only if the universities take ‘non-elite’ up-front payers – just the sort of contradictory thinking that Plato hoped philosophy would remedy. Maybe Dr Gaddafi could offer Willetts some tutorials on Rawls.