Back to school

University to Uni: the politics of higher education in England since 1944

Robert Stevens <em>Polit

This book, despite its subtitle, is really about how Charles Clarke's top-up fees are the only way to restore to British universities their freedom and their standards, and how regrettable it is that lefty Sixties pinkos oppose these fees.

Tacked on at the beginning is a 60-page canter through the history of British universities between 1944 and 1997. This is easily the best part of the book, offering a quick and clear guide to the most revolutionary half-century that our universities have ever experienced. In 1950, Stevens reminds us, fewer than one in 50 of our young people went to university; today it is nearly half. Doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, engineers, pharmacists and journalists either learned on the job in apprenticeships, or went to specialist institutions such as teacher training colleges.

There are interesting reminders that nothing in the debate on education is new. In 1960, the Anderson Committee assumed that university was for the few, and therefore recommended that parents be obliged to continue to contribute towards a student's upkeep. To pay grants for everyone would be unfair to the majority who did not go to university. Today, the argument in favour of higher fees is that there are too many students, not too few. When Labour was in opposition, Jeff Rooker was fired as front-bench spokesman on higher education for floating the idea of a graduate tax. Did they know they would go down that road when in government? Of course they did.

But in the rest of the book, Stevens adopts the tone of a grumpy right-wing don. Some academics, he writes, lower standards by "signing petitions about political situations in all parts of the world". The Association of University Teachers "appeared to put equality well ahead of excellence". Old Labour people "took some delight in the demise of the old universities". Harrumph.

He longs for the good old days, when "the older universities, from Edinburgh to Cambridge, had no doubt they were producing elites which helped run the country. Their primary task was therefore to train minds and help pass on cultural values. Today the word 'elite' has a particularly pejorative meaning." Then we get the usual rant about how trade union bosses, Guardian executives and the former Soviet Union's politburo are all elites, too, so what do they have against elitism?

Stevens deplores "stupid" attacks on Tony Blair (whom he admires) over Blair sending his son to a school that is accused of covert selection and having him tutored by a master from a public school, Westminster. Yet when writing about Anthony Crosland, Harold Wilson's egalitarian education secretary, he remarks in a footnote: "[Crosland] saw nothing inconsistent in his wife's children, who lived with him, attending private schools." Even Crosland's sexual promiscuity is shoehorned into the argument.

When polytechnics became universities, Stevens writes, there were suddenly "institutions offering programmes in Caribbean Studies, Beach Management and even Yorkshire Studies". I can see no reason why these subjects should be any less rigorous, or deserving of a degree, than history or philosophy or English literature.

Neither, in truth, can Stevens. A former master of Pembroke College, Oxford, he has spent much of his life in senior academic posts in the United States, and is both a British and a US citizen. This makes him more interesting: he cannot be dismissed as just a snobbish don. US universities have been awarding degrees in non-traditional subjects for years, and degrees that are useful in business have always been prized. Stevens seems to approve of this, and thinks there ought to be an unfettered market in higher education, yet he yearns for the good old days when academics studied abstruse subjects in ivory towers.

His years in America have their downside. References to "Secretary Clarke" grate. It's like hearing Donald Rumsfeld say how grateful he is to his good friend Secretary Straw, or like being directed to the restroom. And his years out of the UK have left him a little vague about British politics. He has trouble distinguishing between Chris Patten, the European commissioner and chancellor of Oxford University, and John Patten, who was education secretary under John Major. My pleasure at finding myself quoted three times (two of them accurately) was marred because twice I was "Frances" not "Francis", and on the third occasion, I became Francis Burkett. That's too close to House of Cards for comfort.

Francis Beckett's Stalin's British Victims will be published by Sutton in June