David Willetts loves Universities. He tells us that in the opening sentence of his book ‘A University Education’. This will be an important book, I’m sure. It’s also unusual. Willetts is a plausible author, a minister who, despite the extraordinary rancour of the debates about higher education in his four years, left the post generally respected, if not wholly agreed with. Imagine how Jeremy Hunt’s big book of the NHS would go down, or a Liz Truss study of the Judiciary for comparison.
There are reviews already – Nigel Thrift in the THE and Andy Westwood for HEPI for example. This is not going to be a review. I do want to draw people’s attention to Willett’s robust critique of the ‘more will mean worse’ argument. A large part of the book is spent defending why it’s worth going to university, and he takes on Kingsley Amis (and his contemporary followers) firmly. Amis had thought that academic standards were going to be harmed beyond repair as we moved to 5% of the population going to university, now we are close to 50%. Willetts writes:
We can concede something very important to Kingsley Amis, however. Setting aside his anxieties about their effects, he was the first writer to observe one of the great educational and social changes in post-war Britain – the shift from elite to mass higher education. It is a crucial change in the character of the university which is not widely appreciated or understood. When we see photographs of the M1 in the years immediately after it was opened we are amazed at how quiet and empty it looks and perhaps dream of being the solitary driver cruising past Luton in 1960. The M1 was expected to carry 20,000 cars per day and is now taking 140,000 – growth on a similar scale to higher education. But we know there is no going back and that if we were such a solitary driver we would be in a country that was actually very different and deeply impoverished compared with what we all now enjoy (or we would think an epidemic had broken out and nobody had bothered to tell us). We don’t just have more university places and more cars – we also have more TV channels, more foreign travel, more supermarkets, more information, more books, and more films – the shift from elite to mass is one of the features of modern capitalism and we cannot and should not stop it in higher education any more than anywhere else.
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press pp 143-144
No doubt we will debate many aspects of the book, but let’s remember that David Willetts has set out to defend the move from an elite to an universal higher education system. That alone makes this welcome.