This ex-polytechnic adds more value than Oxbridge

<em>Letters extra</em> - Two weeks ago, Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, argued in the <em>

Alan Ryan (NS Essay, 26 March) has concluded that the critics of university expansion were right. More has meant worse, although he offers little more than anecdotal evidence in support. "More means worse" was always a truism. Assuming intelligence is not distributed equally in the population, the average standard is bound to be lower if selective higher education grows from 5 per cent of the age group to 50 per cent. The same will be the case if one selects the best 50 per cent of footballers rather than the best 5 per cent, to take Ryan's favourite analogy. Yet, as he later concedes, there is "a lot to be said" for "a world where everyone plays energetic but mediocre football" rather than "a world of couch potatoes". More means neither better nor worse. More means more, and more, I would argue, is better.

Ryan, as warden of New College, Oxford, is at or near the top of the tree. I am near the bottom, a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, a former polytechnic. We take students at whom Oxford would not look, students with average or poor A levels or other qualifications. Some come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some from schools without a strong academic tradition, and some perhaps gained weak A levels because they were then idle or poorly motivated. What we offer them is an opportunity to succeed, and many of them do just that, securing good degrees, rewarding careers and fulfilling lives. If we have failures, so does Oxford, which has always recruited some undergraduates who prefer to play games, pursue hobbies or party, rather than pursue the "serious intellectual inquiries" demanded by Ryan.

Indeed, we may claim to "add value" to our students, more so than the older universities. Ryan won a Brackenbury scholarship to Balliol, perhaps the most prestigious award available in his discipline. He would have succeeded had his Oxford tutors read him the telephone directory. That is not true of most students at Leeds Metropolitan. Yet many have potential, which only needs developing. They often improve perceptibly, sometimes enormously, in academic, vocational and personal skills. A few go on to succeed beyond their and our wildest dreams.

We take teaching more seriously than Oxford, whose teaching was (and I suspect still is) generally mediocre, a chore interfering with serious scholarship and research. Two of us would assemble for a noon tutorial outside our tutor's door, usually around ten past, knowing from experience that punctuality was pointless. When we ventured to knock, our tutor would put his head round the door. Could we wait a minute? After a much longer interval we would timidly knock again. Our tutor's face would briefly reappear and register surprise that we were still there. Towards one, he would commonly re-emerge and ask us to return at five. This was no old-fashioned, absent-minded academic. When we eventually penetrated his study, the tutorial was regularly punctuated by phone calls from other luminaries of the Oxford history department, for discussions on Oxford politics.

Our students demand more. They are commonly supporting themselves stacking shelves at Morrisons between classes, and some have children to care for. They have enough problems fitting their complicated lives around our timetables without the added burden of arbitrary requests to "come back at five". Nor would they necessarily be impressed if they were taught by people at the frontiers of research. Research, by its very nature, tends to be highly specialised. At Oxford, the college-based system ensured that, most of the time, tutors were teaching topics on which they lacked personal research experience. My best tutor at Oxford was, then, the youngest and worst qualified.

Are we at Leeds Metropolitan neglecting "serious vocational training", as Ryan implies? I don't think so. We have developed courses in subjects including information technology, nursing and public relations, and our graduates pursue successful careers in these areas. But we have no monopoly of vocational degree courses. Law and medicine, two of the oldest subjects in the traditional university curriculum, are highly vocational.

Do we, as "intellectuals" (if Ryan would recognise us as such), "find it hard to believe that not everyone can or wants to stretch their mind and imagination as far as they will go"? Perhaps. Some of our students, as Ryan suggests, might be happier dismantling old cars, although I have had students who have tried this for a living and want something more stimulating.

I have followed Ryan's career, at a distance, since we attended the same public school. I can remember coming across a dedication in one of his early books, on John Stuart Mill. He thanked Michael Cherniavsky, the history teacher who taught us both, for persuading him to put aside motoring magazines to read Mill's On Liberty. He had been "grateful ever since". Many of us are similarly grateful because Cherniavsky inspired a generation of students to stretch their minds and imaginations as far as they would go. Would we have been happier "unstretched"? Who knows? I prefer to believe, with Mill, that intellectual curiosity is part of being human. "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied." The quotation is so well known that a reference is superfluous, but it comes from Mill's Utilitarianism, page 281 of the Penguin Classic, edited by Alan Ryan. I recommend his introduction.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube