There is a lot of focus on universities at the moment, however, no-one seems to be focussing on quite the right thing, or things. The first thing is what university is all about: is it necessary that so many people go to university, and is it necessary that so many universities exist? What is the difference between further and higher education, given that you can these days study many vocational subjects at university? (I suppose you could argue that the three traditional university subjects of theology, medicine and law are all vocational.) The second, which both lies under and follows on from the first, is what education is all about. Addressing that will not only sort out the university problem but also the problem of standards.
An academic friend of mine bemoaned the fact that students don’t really care about what they study so long as they get their certificate at the end. They care about the marks they get, but don’t really understand the principles behind marks. Part of the reason for this is that percentages are inappropriate marks – what really is the difference between 53% and 55%? But part of it is a lack of understanding about what university is really for. It’s not just vocational. In fact, it’s not primarily vocational.
If we are to achieve high standards in education, fiddling with the tertiary, secondary and even primary sectors will not do anything. Set league tables, exams and whatever; standards will not improve, despite appearances (all those As). The trouble is, standards will only improve if society changes its views on intelligence and its relation to job and recognises education as not a means to an end but an end in itself. If you want to know anything about the history of Cambridge in the railway and industrial age, the man to ask is Allan Brigham, a blue-badge guide, author of books and articles on Cambridge – and a street-sweeper. Here, clearly, is an educated and intelligent man who has chosen to perform a menial job. It suits him, as he gets to examine the streets that he sweeps in the detail which appears in his books. Nonetheless, here is an example to us all of a job being a choice and not a result of class, upbringing or education. Similarly, a friend of mine is a gardener. He can do the Guardian crossword in 10 minutes, play Bach rather well, and his QC brother describes him as one of the cleverest, wisest men he knows. For him, gardening is the most fulfilling way of life. I myself hold a couple of history degrees and have several years teaching under my belt, but have now gone into furniture restoration.
If we’re to achieve true education, a few things need to happen. First of all, intelligence needs to be separated from vocation. That’s a societal shift, and won’t happen immediately, of course. However, it would be helped if the government could stop seeing education as a means to an economic end, and start seeing it more as an end in itself. Don’t forget that some of the most practical applications of physics were the theories of theoretical physicists. League tables and RAEs must be abolished. Love of learning is the most important thing a teacher can impart. It doesn’t matter what facts the pupil learns while at school (or university); it’s the approach that matters. For some reason, Dorothy Parker has popped into my head: ‘You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think’. You can’t make anyone think, but you can encourage them.