The Financial Times brings us an excellent example of the classic More Means Worse argument today. Jeremy Paxman writes a column that manages to tick all the boxes. Appeal to halcyon days? Yup. Conversation with head of an Oxbridge College? Tick. Snide insinuations about ‘lesser universities’? Buckets full. What has happened to universities?
At the heart of the argument is a concern about ‘stratification’, universities ‘lower down the food chain’ where bad things happen. We’re not treated to any evidence of this, of course, the information provided at high table will suffice. What are the problems of expanding higher education? We are treated to the list: administrators, grade inflation, casualisation of staff contracts, etc. We are told that people won’t go on the record to complain about these things – which is odd, people complain about them all the time. Paxman notes that people complained in the 1950s that things had gone to pot since the 1920s (Kingsley Amis doesn’t get quoted, but his accusation of More Means Worse infuses the piece). People complained in the 1920s that things had gone horribly wrong (universities were coping with the aftermath of war and a series of financial crashes that make our current ‘austerity’ seem very mild). That’s not to say that those aspects haven’t got worse, but they are balanced by other things getting better.
The anecdotes build up a picture; relying on ‘evidence’ such as the accusation that Charles Clark made the “yahoo-ish observation that he couldn’t understand why the state should support medieval historians” – he didn’t, although it was widely misreported at the time. And, as a sign of where the conversation at high table went, there is this curious lament for the spending power of academics
Poverty long ago drove the professors out of the houses built for them in the Victorian suburbs of Cambridge and Oxford. North Oxford is colonised by bankers: there is a house for rent there at £300,000 a year.
While the property market in North Oxford is a special case, this is a wider phenomenon – professors at the new civic universities could afford mansions in their suburbs too – a construct of lower house prices versus pay, but also a mark of the family wealth of many of those who went to university.
Finally, in a moment of self-justification, he makes the mistake of confusing University Challenge with University education. While it’s a jolly thing to be able to recall a mix of general and specific knowledge, that’s not what a university education is. A university education prepares people for life, not just for pub quizzes.