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Epitaph for the university

The decline of higher education, says Kenneth Minogue, is a tale of vanity, cowardice and stupidity

Nobody now doubts that British universities are in a sad condition - certainly nobody who actually works in them. They have become tools of government, subject to compulsory homogenisation in their teaching, and their capacity for scholarship and wonder is being codified by committees. Watering down the academic world by expanding it under the euphemism 'higher education' bids fair to produce a job-crazed proletariat in search of credentials, as has happened in other countries. The story of how the collapse of an 800-year success story came about is a fascinating tale of vanity, cowardice and stupidity - standard-issue human folly in other words. All I can do is indicate some of the confusions which led to it.

To ask 'what are universities?' is a question currently out of fashion because it seems to invoke the dreaded thing called 'essentialism'. But the question needs to be asked because it can be answered historically. Universities emerged in the twelfth century as the expression of a passion to understand the world, both in terms of the Christian revelation and of such classical philosophy as had been salvaged from the wreck of the Dark Ages. Their instrument was reason, their guiding light was truth.

As institutions, universities prospered in Britain, France and other countries from the benefactions of the religious. They sustained, sometimes with difficulty, an independence of the conventional pieties of society at large. Occasionally their freedom fell into the corruption of torpor, from which they were sometimes rescued by outside intervention. This is what happened in Britain in the nineteenth century. But universities sustained science and scholarship, and kept alive a sense of other worlds than the present. They were not, in other words, 'relevant'. And to escape the deadening pressures of relevance was a remarkable achievement.

Yes, yes, I know that their graduates were often useful in the church, the law, and as servants of the rulers. But universities were often so imperfect at these merely vocational responsibilities that rulers were commonly driven to establish theological or military or some other form of specialised college to get this work done. It is precisely this suggestion, however - the assumption that social institutions have to be, and always have been, useful to some outside manipulator - which reveals the difficulty most people today have in understanding what universities are about. What role do they play in society, people ask? An even more vulgar error is to think of them as essentially snobbish finishing schools for the rich.

The idea that nothing is what it is, merely what it can be used for, is the utilitarian attitude which has led to the popular illusion that everything is politics. In a democracy, this rapidly turns out to mean that the government can decide what role social institutions should play in 'our' national life. The state today has a thing called a 'strategy' for every aspect of how we live, covering everything from universities to our collective propensity to commit suicide. A government minister is always looking over your shoulder to tell you what to eat, what books to read, when to put your children to bed, what pleasures you will be allowed (sex yes, tobacco no) and on through everything else you might think of doing. And behind all this, both reflecting and justifying such a proto-totalitarian development, are the dim pop-epistemologists of the social faculties who explain that nobody now believes in truth because everything is power.

Universities used to be thought of as pretty 'classy' institutions by people who had no idea of what they were about, and lots of people wanted to go through what they imagined to be a process of education. Whatever this might mean for education in schools, there can be no 'right' to education in universities, because you cannot exercise this supposed right without having certain capacities - an interest in truth, curiosity, a certain sense of wonder, an ability to follow abstract argument, and so on. It happens that these capacities are pretty rare. Most people don't even want to exercise them. Understandably, they want to get on, to do something in the world. Universities can open the mind, but for most people an education is merely a temporary release from the pressures of ambition and desire.

The universities have invented and cultivated a few rare pleasures: to relive, through literature, the experiences of people long dead; to theorise about nature; to go through a lot of rubbish fortuitously left behind in earlier times in order to understand how people lived before there were historians; to investigate the concepts by which we make sense of the world. For a very few, these activities are the source of their being. For quite a lot more, the current conclusions arrived at by these people make moderately interesting essays or television programmes: entertainment for rather more sophisticated people. For most of the inhabitants of modern nations, this is a remote and incomprehensible set of doings only of use because it might get them a job. And for governments, the only point of knowledge is power.

But it is the profoundly unscholarly who, through cowardice and greed, have been let into universities, both as customers for degrees and even as the providers of all sorts of vocational mimicry of academic work. Even quite explicitly political forms of enthusiasm have not been excluded - Marxism in the past (mostly), feminism today.

I have presented a purist, almost ivory-tower view of universities. It is also a view which assumes that the full range of academic inquiries which universities have developed is a Western creation. But it is only such a view which can make comprehensible what makes universities different and mysterious, and which can begin to explain why they have almost nothing to do with 'higher education' as it features in Britain's 'national strategy for education' today.

Kenneth Minogue is emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics

For more articles and links on higher education, go to

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999



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