The greats, James Naughtie and John Humphrys, didn't need an elite education. Credit: Bill Robinson/Radio Times/Getty Images

June 2, 2021   5 mins

Fresh out of the London School of Economics, my head full of theories about taming inflation, I was sent to cover a coup in the Maldives.

At an airfield outside Delhi, I was shepherded onto a Russian Antonov troop carrier with a few other journalists. It had no seats. The journey took hours and at one point a pilot appeared and started walking down the row of reporters, asking each person something. It was very loud so there was no way of hearing his question until he got to me. “Do you have a guidebook for the Maldives? We don’t know which Island the airport is on.”

I did. The pilot beamed. He returned to the cockpit, and the plane changed direction, doubling back on itself. I’d spent long hours in the library with Hayek and Schumpeter, but in the end I was saved by Berlitz. We landed safely in the Maldives — only to find the coup had fizzled out. The pirates who had cackhandedly attempted to overthrow the government set sail and never came back. This was the beginning of my career.

Since then, it has included wars, revolutions, errors of judgement, stomach-turning fear, blood-spattered sights, narrow scrapes, changes of heart and mind. And that’s just inside Broadcasting House. Could all of this — should all of this — have been achieved without an education provided at the taxpayers’ expense in the years 1980 to 1983 at the London School of Economics?

Almost certainly. My father Peter Woods had no degree when he threw himself out of an aircraft for his first and last parachute jump in order to report on the Suez crisis for the Daily Mirror. Martha Gellhorn had no degree when she became the world’s most celebrated and intrepid reporter and author. Nor did another force of nature, the great John Humphrys, whose alma mater is The Penarth Times.

But John’s hopped it to Classic FM and we are left, on the Today Programme, in a fusty senior common room impervious to cheeky lads and lasses from South Wales — unless they’ve spent years looking at books. The current presenters’ roster boasts two Oxford graduates, two from Cambridge, and me. It is unlikely that another non-graduate like John will present it any time soon and we are reduced as a result. Our perspectives are less diverse. The BBC, to its credit, is upping the number of recruits from non-degree backgrounds, suggesting that it understands that three years punting on the Cam is not the only pathway to success.

Perhaps that’s because the Corporation sees the wider picture. Death by professionalisation. It’s not elite over-production that worries me so much as the quality of the elite that is being over-produced. University these days encourages a way of thinking about the world that is homogenous. Those who go — even those who have seen hardship and adversity — are smoothed around the edges. They don’t question the establishment because they (alright, we) are the establishment.

At its worst, all this leads to a deadening. A weeding out of the kind of prickly cussed characters who bring vivacity to any line of work — and have made British journalism what it is.

Take the late great Brian Barron, a former BBC war correspondent. He came across an ITN crew broken down in the desert in the first Gulf war he gave them water and passed on their co-ordinates to the military so that they could be rescued, but he refused to take their tape back to base to be broadcast. Brian was once described by Jon Snow (who competed with him in Africa for ITN) as, “the most tenacious, even ruthless, correspondent I have ever worked against — the ultimate, objective professional.” That word, “professional,” is used here — was once always used — to describe ability rather than status.

Because Brian did not go to university. I seriously believe if he had he would have taken the tape for the stranded crew. He would have been professional in our modern sense — polished and polite — but unprofessional in Snow’s terms.

Snow, though he went, never graduated, and has also been professional without being, well, a professional. In their pomp these people found things out, asked simple direct questions, never let anyone get away with waffle. Their minds were uncluttered. They respected themselves and their craft. They thought they knew the difference between up and down, right and wrong, good and bad, male and female. They were not befuddled by questions asked for the sake of asking. Thoughts had for the sake of thinking.

And yet even as I write this, I know my heart is not in it. I learned nothing of much use to me at the LSE and yet, in truth, I learned everything. Crucially, I learned that I didn’t matter as much as I assumed I did. On a Saturday afternoon, sitting in the hugeness of the light-filled library and realising, courtesy of Eileen Barker’s moral philosophy course, that humans might not have free will. Rushing in on the tube for an early class with George Jones, doyen of politics professors, who hated what select committees were doing to the House of Commons. Bill Letwin (father of Oliver) who seemed to me to be impossibly Right-wing because he thought governments needed to be wary of involving themselves in economic life. David Starkey on how every other historian of his period was an idiot and a charlatan.

Here is the first lesson they all taught: they don’t care about you. For the first time in my life I was on my own. Of course, there are schoolteachers who don’t care about you either, but they had to pretend. At university in the 80s, they didn’t pretend. David Starkey was a good example, on the up in those days and with bigger fish to fry. And because of that: an electrifying teacher. I loved the idea that this was an opportunity I could feast on or pass up: the choice, for the first time ever, was mine.

So while I am sympathetic to the “too much education” school, I can’t in all honesty join it. University, done right, sorts your mind out. Confronts you with your own insignificance.

Of course, the education has to be real. Meaning lecturers must lecture and students must listen. Although the LSE in the 80s had its share of protesters and no-platformers and shouters about this and that, most of us understood that the trick was to listen. Humility is not much in fashion in the age of Twitter but it’s a good thing to have at university.

Perhaps that’s an argument for paying for the whole thing from general taxation again: we never thought we had ‘rights’ because we were not consumers. We were privileged — all of us at university in the pre-fees and pre-mass attendance age — and we knew it. This may have allowed those who taught us more space to be better at what they did, which was thinking more than teaching.

Nobody had to worry about being cancelled because they’d committed a micro-aggression. And this in turn encouraged eccentricity, intellectual heterodoxy, adventure. Most of the academics and most of the students actually believed in freedom. One of my lecturers was a supporter of the Cambodian mass murderer Pol Pot. Another (the wonderful Kurt Klappholz) had  been in a Nazi Concentration camp. Neither of them prepared me to cover a coup, but they taught me to look twice.

No punting of course in Aldwych, no misty memories of dawn after the May Ball. But halcyon days. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Even if it’d made me a better journalist.

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.