Friday, June 10, 2011

Grayling’s school

Anthony Grayling is opening a university. He found some investors, did his sums, wrote a business plan and rounded up some genuine superstars to teach there.  What’s not to like?  Well, it’s a private school so it can charge more than the maximum for state universities of £9000 a year.  And it is: double that, in fact.  And this seems to have annoyed some people.  For example, Terry Eagleton, who calls it ‘odious’.

Anyway, why should anyone be surprised at the prospect of academics signing on for a cushy job at 25% more than the average university salary, with shares in the enterprise to boot?

What would prevent most of us from doing so is the nausea which wells to the throat at the thought of this disgustingly elitist outfit.

There’s always been private education in the UK. I don’t see a problem with it providing that everyone has equal access to state schools and that state schools are as good as they can be (which is where we might, admittedly, have a problem).  Why should universities be different to schools?  The rich will have access to better education just as they have access to better (or at least more expensive) food, clothes, cars and houses.  Personally, I’d rather focus on improving state education – and access to that education – than complaining about someone who wants to provide high-quality education privately.  Mostly to rich people, to be sure (although 20% of students will receive scholarships), but I don’t see the part where having more educated people is a bad thing.

Eagleton conjures up a fantasy world where Grayling’s outfit is a piratical entity like the insurance company in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  The notion that it could be harmful to the education system as a whole is laughable. The charge that the lecturers are abandoning the ailing university system and leeching off its misfortune is equally muddled. They don’t have a duty to the university system. Indeed, at least one – Richard Dawkins – has already been forced to retire by that very system. It strikes me that his talents as a teacher are better used in actual – you know – teaching than in – say – not teaching. It’s difficult to see how this constitutes a betrayal of educational ideals.

Eagleton’s distaste seems to stem from a dubious thin-end-of-the-wedge argument. But this argument is a rather strange one: we should strive for mediocrity to ensure equal access to education?  And again, the rich already have routine access to better education at school level.  What’s the difference? I understand his discomfort to some extent. The argument is one of opportunity: it doesn’t seem fair that the rich might receive more and better opportunities solely because of their wealth.  But this seems to me a systemic problem related to how we measure and regulate the quality of education.  Our last government was less concerned about standards than about bums on seats, which I think was more harmful to the university system than anything Grayling is up to.

Another of Eagleton’s complaints is that the college is funded.  Yes, he really finds a problem in the fact that rich people have invested in something designed to make them money.  He’s not above being disingenuous either:

This piece of the so-called private sector will actually be parasitic on the public one, rather like surgeons who use public facilities for private operations. The college's degrees will be awarded by the University of London, which ought to know better than to collude in an enterprise which could result in seeing its professors poached by those with the biggest bank balances. London Uni will share its libraries and other facilities too, thus ensuring that its own students are forced to share resources with those who have bought their way in.

First, I think we can be pretty sure that London University will charge for use of its facilities, in one way or another. Second, students will not be ‘buying their way in’.  They’ll also need the grades.  He’s trying to make it sound as though money is the only qualification required.

The new college, staffed as it is by such notable liberals, will of course be open to all viewpoints. Well, sort of. One takes it there will not be a theology department.

No, and there aren’t physics or biology departments either, so what?

Eagleton’s piece is a string of personal attacks, the presentation of speculation as fact and outright fabrication.  This is my favourite part:

There will be a number of private unis where students are assigned fags and expect to stroll into the Foreign Office with a third-class degree, and a lot of other places which cannot afford to paint the walls.

Calm down, Terry.

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