How to crush dream-crushing snake-oil salesmen

“I recently attended my own graduation ceremony. It was a friendly, enjoyable day with my family. Hundreds of us sat in the grand conference centre, clad in robes and mortarboards, and were told of our unquestionable merit by the head of the school of Politics. Call me a cynic, but I couldn’t help feel that such blanket praise was designed to complete our (now totally commercial) ‘university experience’: an everyone-is-a-winner ego booster, straight off the shop shelf. It had little basis in reality.” – Harry Howard, The Telegraph

Harry Howard was in his first year at Sussex University when I was doing my finals, and in his second when I continued on to do a Masters. Harry overcame a brain tumour before arriving at Sussex. One of the most thoughtful students I met at college, he had no trouble sticking to his real political principles while everyone around there was losing theirs – he didn’t sacrifice them or allow them to be shaped by an intimidating mob demanding a firm commitment to an, ‘Everyone must have prizes’ culture, accompanied by a hateful attitude towards people they identified as straight, white, little Englanders (like witches). Harry stood out from the crowd, succeeded me as Editor of the student newspaper and wrote a number of stand-out pieces which often went against perceived wisdom on the campus. I most humbly and cautiously predict he will make a fine journalist and, in later life, an academic.

I did not attend my graduation ceremony. Never have the reasons for this been articulated so deftly than by another person in Harry. Harry’s experience, shared above, makes me feel less alone and mightily relieved that I made the right decision.

Can a rigorous centre of academic excellence also be an egalitarian beacon of inclusivity?

Harry identifies a conflict between those who want university to be an “egalitarian beacon of inclusivity” and “rigorous centre of academic excellence”. Really, the two needn’t be considered mutually exclusive.

Why can’t the government of the day set up a funding model which encourages universities to aspire to be a balance of both? Before New Labour’s sweeping changes to higher education, universities were certainly rigorous centres of academic excellence. They were also cosy institutions. I avoid the word elitism, as they are used by different people to mean two different things. Now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. The introduction, and raising, of tuition fees, have made students customers who can complain about a degree being too challenging. At the same time, this combined with maintenance grants which does little to tame crony snake oil salesmen – landlords and their letting agents and club promoters.

Simply put, the ambition for fifty percent of all school leavers to go to university was, albeit well-meaning, probably hastily conceived and most certainly unintelligently executed. There has been a cost-of-living crisis for the young people who are refused access to, or have never had, the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’. An unregulated housing market has punished a generation of people given the choice of ‘university or bust’ – the number of apprenticeships being offered while I was doing my A-Levels had dwindled. Surely it is little wonder they turn out for Jeremy Corbyn in large numbers, a leader of a political party uncompromising about his fury with how government policies have royally fucked over the young.

As Andrew Adonis, the minister responsible for introducing and raising tuition fees in the 2000s, has said, the vice chancellors lobbied a gullible Labour government and a sweetheart deal was made. Sussex’s Vice Chancellor at the time Harry and I read History and Politics at Sussex, Michael Farthing, was loathed by the loony left and despised by most students I met. While his salary increased to levels which flattered his ability (£280,000 a year), the university’s services were outsourced to private companies and generous conditions for those workers – sick pay and the like – were removed.

While investigating the history of our Vice Chancellor for an interview for the student newspaper, I was tipped off by our News Editor Jack Williams that he’d discovered Michael Farthing lived next door Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell. Funny, that. The write-up of Steve Barker’s brilliant interview is here.

Good degrees should be hard to get

Degrees were handed out like sweets at Sussex, especially to those studying the humanities or social sciences. Sussex is not a Russell Group university but a ’60s gem which thrived on being political. Frankly, the tutors had so many students that they didn’t have time to scrutinise essays properly. I once received 80 for an essay I wrote in 24 hours.

Sadly the commercialisation of universities will make them all carbon copies of each other, a cosy cartel of business managers overcharging students, and the taxpayers, to line the pockets of the greedy and untalented: vice-chancellors and landlords.

One day historians might tell the story of how sacred centres of academic excellence quickly turned into profane commercial chambers promoting mass-delusion, giant factories churning out graduates trained to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. I hope historians will also tell the story of how the graduates overthrew the cruel system which sucked them in and spat them out.

As an audience member recently said on Question Time, university should be academically demanding, and financially easy. That would mean, roughly translated, places at universities ought to be carefully awarded to citizens desperately curious to learn more about the world, and capable of becoming experts in a field. They should be trialled by interview by admissions tutors who gain a knowledge of their background, lived experiences and potential. Reform along these lines could be helpful. We might one day truly be able to exclaim that universities have become sacred centres of academic excellence which are also egalitarian beacon of inclusivity.

Paul Millar – University of Sussex, 2012-16