Down, don, down

John Sutherland

  • Decline of Donnish Dominion by A.H. Halsey
    Oxford, 344 pp, £40.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 827376 2
  • Millikan’s School: A History of the California Institute of Technology by Judith Goodstein
    Norton, 317 pp, £17.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 393 03017 2

More did mean worse – although not quite in the way Kingsley Amis feared. He and his Black Paper colleagues misjudged what would happen to ‘standards’ after the expansionist Robbins Report. The British university product – the education of undergraduates and scholarly research – has never been better than it now is, nor its international reputation higher. In 1990, a poll of European participants in Erasmus gave top place in seven out of 11 mainstream academic subjects to a British university, Erasmus being a transfer credit scheme by which undergraduates can earn a home degree by study abroad. The brightest young European minds will be drawn magnetically to Britain. British universities continue to be major exporters to traditional Anglophone markets, sustaining an imperial authority long after Empire has vanished. Expatriate Britons and natives who have profitably studied in Britain will be found at leading departments everywhere in North America and Australasia.

British universities still enjoy a uniquely high degree of what Halsey calls ‘commensality’: that is, academic people sharing the same table and talking to each other across departmental and rank lines. This is partly a function of small size and collegiate tradition: and it’s a hard trick to pull off while at the same time maintaining subject excellence and openness to outside ideas. And yet British universities rival America in their ability to digest alien intellectual influences. Halsey cites the recruitment of refugees from Fascist and Stalinist persecution. More recently, the Derrida brouhaha at Cambridge was evidence of a laudable flexibility rather than of Blimpism (which is how some of the press tended to see it). At the end of the day, Derrida was honoured in the British university. As Pierre Bourdieu points out in Homo Academicus (a work which, oddly, Halsey does not cite), there is less honour for the prophet of Deconstruction in his own country. Bourdieu recalls ‘the astonishment of a certain young American visitor, at the beginning of the Seventies, to whom I had to explain that all his intellectual heroes, like Althusser, Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, not to mention the minor prophets of the moment, held marginal positions in the university system which often disqualified them from officially directing research. In several cases, they had not themselves written a thesis, at least not in canonical form, and were therefore not allowed to direct one.’ Bureaucratic small-mindedness stifles Continental European university life. It is mercifully absent in Britain.

British staff-student ratios remain enviably low, at around one to 12. Pastoral and tutorial traditions are under pressure, but generally intact. British universities waste much less of their educational raw material (young human beings) than their competitors do. Casualty rates are below 10 per cent in most departments. British undergraduates learn more in three years than do their foreign counterparts in four or more. And – for all their complaints – British students still have an unrivalled level of financial support for tuition fees and living expenses. The majority of British students graduate without excessive financial burdens. In their Darwinian faith that any successful system will have losers, even the most selective American universities expect to flunk up to a third of their undergraduates. Customer dissatisfaction runs high – particularly at private universities, where fees are around $18,000 a year. Few young Americans nowadays work their way through college, and many graduate (or fail to graduate) with crippling debts to pay off. Reviled as all Ministers of Education since Keith Joseph have been, they are right to assert that British higher education continues to be excellent, efficient, humane and a credit to the country.

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