by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 28
June 2022
Campus Wars
07:00

Should conservatives abolish higher education?

Even moderate conservatives are starting to doubt the value of universities
by Mary Harrington
Most universities are a bit more of a waste of time than this one.

The English Literature department at Sheffield Hallam University will stop offering undergraduate degrees from 2023, in response to government moves to shutter “low value” degrees. The news has stirred up another round of the never-ending debate over what exactly we think university is for — and has confronted cultural conservatives with this impossible dilemma.

Since the start of the modern era university education has more or less uncomfortably married two sometimes-conflicting aims: transmitting the best that’s been thought and said in our culture to a new generation, and serving as a finishing-school for the professional middle classes. But it’s been clear for some years now that outside the cream of elite institutions and courses, much of tertiary education is not delivering on either of these fronts.

In earnings terms, by 2015 higher apprenticeships were delivering better than many degrees, and in 2018 the IFS reported that only 17% of students would ever repay their loan in full. Nor does higher education close the “gender pay gap”. For many, then, the so-called “graduate premium” never materialises.

But until relatively recently, for at least some cultural conservatives, some things still appeared to have value in and of themselves. From this perspective arts degrees don’t need to be justified in “value for money” terms.

This is harder to sustain, though, when even moderate conservatives find themselves at the sharp end of increasingly savage university culture wars — especially in arts faculties. Higher education is now notorious for “woke” students (who recently even cancelled the UK Secretary of State for Education), as well as selecting sharply against conservative teaching staff, and sometimes expelling those deemed guilty of blasphemy against progressive orthodoxy.

And within this orthodoxy, what is meant by “best” is subject to permanent revolution. For radical progressives, the idea of transmitting a tradition is anathema almost by definition: in what sense can we justify transmitting any kind of cultural tradition whatsoever, when this merely amounts to reproducing oppressive ideologies? Accordingly, arts faculties across the country have for some time now faced growing calls to abolish the canon and to “decolonise” literature curricula condemned as overwhelmingly white, patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative and so on. And as the progressive ideological majority has adopted an increasingly take-no-prisoners approach to ensuring its political priors are transmitted as received opinion, even the last holdouts of conservatism in the academy have found themselves besieged.

This puts cultural conservatives in an invidious position. If you retain some residual affection for the role of universities as repositories of cultural tradition, you’re likely to want to support the continued existence of — for example — English Literature degrees inasmuch as they perform this transmission. But when, instead of transmitting canonical culture, arts faculties inveigh against the “canon” as such, there’s little to stop cultural conservatives adding their voices to the philistine chorus demanding that institutions demonstrate value for money, or face the axe.

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Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

Make the universities own their own loan books. If one of their graduates doesn’t earn enough to repay their student loan, the university loses equivalent funding. Currently the poor old taxpayer picks up the bill. The universities must feel the pain.
Pretty soon universities would stop pushing half-baked humanities courses to intellectually middling students because each one that ends up earning less than £50k p.a. will be a loss to them.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Or banks should stop offering student loans for non stem topics at middling universities. Lack of application will de facto guarantee the death of these “soft” diplomas.

Last edited 1 month ago by Aldo Maccione
Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

I think the loans are all arranged by a government agency rather than the banks so it is even easier. The government could just say “these courses are no longer eligible for a loan”.
It is one thing for the taxpayer to pick up the tab for the odd physics graduate who becomes a drop-out but not for tens of thousands of sociology graduates doing jobs that twenty years ago didn’t need a degree qualification.
Not to mention the creation of a cadre of graduates with Mickey Mouse degrees, a chip on their shoulders because they aren’t earning graduate money and a grounding in woke identity politics. Nothing could be more destabilising for the country.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 month ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

Quite so. Why would a student of English go to Sheffield Hallam rather than Sheffield itself, or any of the Russell Group? Answer – because they’re not much good! Yet our government continue to support many courses like this. The only surprise is that the government hasn’t already moved to stop this, but then it does seem amazingly slow to act on just about everything!

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 month ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

If the Govt didn’t guarantee those loans, they would stop making the dumb ones.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jeff Cunningham
M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t really see how this would do anything to revive the role of the university in passing on an intellectual and cultural tradition, or contributing to that tradition.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

Just put it out of its misery. A handful of years ago i was still in favour of retaining culturally important faculties like classics departments to preserve the field. Now I think the faculties need to be abolished to preserve them. It is the only way to avoid marxist-inspired deconstructionists from ‘decolonising’ everything out of existence.

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

I often think the classics are too good for the academy; it doesn’t deserve them.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

When I was a student only 5% or so of school leavers went on to University, with others going on to Technical Colleges, Teacher Training, Art Colleges and so on. Tuition was free and maintenance grants were assisted if your parents were poor.
37.9% of school leavers now go on to undergraduate courses. Perhaps that is too many for there are not the ‘graduate’ jobs for them but they are saddled with debt for years.
It was a master stroke by Tony Blair to get school leavers off the unemployment register and make them borrow money to do it. He now wants 70% of people to go on to higher education by 2040. Madness.
If you really wanted to improve the prospects of young people you would ensure that secondary education could specialise in an academic track or a trade orientated track. People on the academic track could work towards university education
Oh look, I’ve re-invented a version of Grammar and Secondary Modern schools. From which you could wonder if the political aversion to ‘Selection’ was greater than the desire to provide young people with ‘Prospects’. Or perhaps it is the builders of student accommodation and well paid university staff that are quite happy with the status quo?

Derek Hilling
Derek Hilling
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Let us not forget that that Higher Education is one of those areas where devolution has been most profound. It is students from England, who bear the brunt of the unpayable loans, because in Scotland and Wales there are no fees. The devolved governments are able to cover HE fees through the absurdly generous Barnett Formula.
This doesn’t affect the basic premise of refusing to provide funding for unsustainable or unjustifiable study, but just remember that a solution created for England, does not apply Scotland and Wales, and could not be enforced without tackling Barnett.
Another conundrum for the ‘broken union’ that is UK Governance!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

A long time ago I was only one of 5 out of a school year of 140 that went to University. On graduation I went in to the private sector
Looking back, financially I would have been much better off going into an apprenticeship or going in to the public sector, so not that much has changed. That is no to say university did not have other benefits
Both of my children and almost all their friends went to university. Most of the men at my gym parted ways with education at 16 an I suspect the education system was only to keen to see the back of them. They seem to be more together and more well grounded and less confused about who they are than my children’s friends

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

And I find that those peers who didn’t go to university, like myself, are roughly in a similar financial position to me all these years later after they went for professional trades and/or college qualifications.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Stewart
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

In my experience they tend to be better off.
The was a lad in my year at school who was bought up by his grandparent and so had to get a job on leaving school, as it happened an apprenticeship with a large international company who had an operation in the city.
Many year later I ended up working for a different division of the same company. About 5 years ago I met 2 employees of the same company based in my home city and asked if they knew my old school friend. Oh yes one of them replied, he retired a few years ago an is now living in France

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

Sheffield Hallam are framing this as defunding by government, but I don’t believe it’s that at all. I have made this point before, but the entire higher and further education sector (worldwide as it happens) is burying it’s head in the sands about the total revolution of the current model that’s pending.

The lockdowns and virtual classrooms have highlighted the issue of how technology has altered the nature of scaling in education, which the education sector does not want to face up to, but soon will be forced to. I’m not judging if it’s good or bad, merely saying it’s inevitable, and it’s easy to illustrate this. In the past, it was a physical and geographical necessity that you needed large numbers of institutions because the best individuals lecturers, couldn’t deliver to everyone. But technology now solves that problem totally. Huge numbers of lectures are now recorded and delivered online, and it is clear that trend has only one direction it can go.

The teaching equation is much more dynamic at Postgrad level but that’s an altogether smaller, more cutting edge, niche market. A lecturer deemed excellent might typically deliver their lecture to, say, a hall of 150. What prevents that same content delivered to 150K students via technology? Nothing. In which case, if that can be done, why would students at other universities not prefer the best lecturers and best content across Universities, over their own local lecturers, and what then justifies the salaries of the peers of the top ones at all the other Universities? They are not providing anything of value that cannot be delivered online by the best ones.

Many people respond to my argument by saying face to face lectures are providing something unique but *absolutely no one* has managed to pinpoint what that is in any way I consider concrete.

There is a socialisation context to going to Uni that many young people are attracted to. The universities are selling a model of very expensive socialisation with education tacked on almost as an afterthought – and I’m saying this model is unfeasible in the face of technological pressure. Young people of course want to socialise but that is completely separate from education and it’s quality, and I think the two will start decoupling quickly over the next few years, putting most existing higher education institutions at risk of going bust.

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

One benefit of physically attending university is access to a university library, though this will become less of an advantage as more and more collections are digitised.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 month ago

Who needs a library when you’ve got Twitter telling you what to think?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

My old university actually got rid of its dusty old library and replaced it with a sparkly new media centre – basically a jazzed up computer room.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I found that one of the benefits (for me) of a University education was getting away from living in my parent’s house and mixing with a much wider range of clever people.
Distance learning may well be ascendant and probably justified on cost grounds… but it misses the social aspects of collective learning.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yep. When I applied in ’79, I very carefully avoided all London Uni’s despite my parents asking plaintively why I couldn’t apply in London and save on accommodation costs.
“The degrees on offer are not attractive” I lied, without a trace of guilt.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

At the same time in Scotland there was a tradition of going to your local university and staying at home.
Thankfully I left home for halls in 2nd year and got the proper university experience of independent living, socialising and study.
And you just contradicted your earlier point about socialisation being important in living at the Uni!

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Stewart
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  AC Harper

A sizable chunk of ‘collective learning’ as you call it has essentially been skewered in Universities which I noticed as my kids went through Uni, (one humanities, one sciences) and the same issue arose across both. All submitted coursework is assessed by software like Ternatin which looks for plagiarism. Because of the cost to your degree if you get caught up in this type of web, students are now typically extremely wary of sharing ideas and helping each other which my cohort used to do literally daily and completely freely. I don’t know what the answer is, but something has definitely been lost.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Last year when my own students came back to campus I had a slide on the first day that said “Introduction to online learning”. The students’ faces dropped. There was a collective gasp of astonishment. Then I realised the typo – it as a carry-over from the previous year – it should have said “Return to face-to-face learning”. The mood in the room changed immediately. I can’t quantify the value of face-to-face, but everyone in the room that day understood it instinctively, and I for one am glad.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

I accept that, but still…
What if, instead of replacing the slide titled “Introduction to online learning”, you added a line to it, in brackets (after persuading your University finance department of course), which said: “and save yourself 40K of debt over three years in the process”?

The point I’m trying to make, it’s a trade-off of cost vs benefit. My face too dropped in the mid eighties, when I realised that the first car I would have to buy was a Ford Escort instead of the BMW 3 series which I coveted. I mean, I could have afforded the BMW, but would have left myself with no saving and a big loan. Compromises we all have to learn.

Last edited 1 month ago by Prashant Kotak
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

In the country where I live, a four-year degree costs the student €12,000, and these are already the highest fees in the European Union. Our institutions are certainly cash-strapped but we turn out graduates that get snapped up by the US tech firms based in the capital city. The main two parties in government are centre-right outfits, they have looked into the UK-style loan system but even they have ruled it out.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

Your universities aren’t as globally respected for research and knowledge as those in Scotland, an equivalently scaled system.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Edinburgh’s renaming of the ‘David Hume’ Tower, where I once attended, prompted me to buy a copy of ‘A Treatise on Human Nature’ immediately and re-read it while there was still time. Effectively I sent my former place of learning a two-fingered gesture, which rather stupidly gave me immense satisfaction.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

For a great many people the lectures were the least valuable part of the universitry experience. The valuable bit was to associate with other members of a profession you might want to follow. It was a matter of learning-how rather than learning-what.
What is is that historians/chemists/engineers do? Do I have the makings of a scholar/scientist/engineer? Is this the sort of thing I am good at, and would be interested in doing for the rest of my life?
All of this presupposes that there is a professional culture which the members of the profession are, by and large, defending. These cultures have historically been small-c conservative, because they have all shared a belief that one is in the middle of a tradition, and that your predecessors for the most part, were not fools. So you can disagree with so-and-so’s interpretation of X, without deciding that history-is-bunk. You can construct an experiment that disproves theory Y, while being sympathetic to the reasons why people thought it was so. You can design new engineering works with modern materials that were never available to the ancients, and still think that the plumbing systems designed by the Romans were a marvel.
Slowly but surely you learn, by doing and by associating with others who are doing, wisdom, and how to have good professional judgement in your field. This is more know-how and not know-what.
All of this changes when your university experience is to be surrounded by people who have no small-c conservatism in their impoverished little souls. You have no way of knowing if you have the makings of a good historian, or what have you, because the good historians are in hiding from the students, most of whom wish them nothing but extinction and harm. Should you find one willing to talk to you, you may find that they sincerely hope that you prosper outside of the academic sector, because being a university academic these days is no fun at all.
If a university education becomes all about the lectures, then, you are perfectly correct there is no need for universities. But lectures are really only good at teaching the know-what’s. You can ace all your courses and still manage to have poor professional judgement, which means that you can only regurgitate what you have learned, and cannot function when faced with new problems.
See: Engineering and the Mind’s Eye by Eugene S. Ferguson for a look at how automation (which has replaced drafting) has resulted in a decline in engineering judgement in the field of civil engineering, with insights that are generalisable to most professional and academic fields.
The question is, how many universities have destroyed themselves? Is it worth fighting back? How to find out?

Last edited 1 month ago by Laura Creighton
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

I broadly agree with a lot of your analysis, and thank you for the book recommendation, I will check it out.

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
1 month ago

This is a profoundly thoughtful Comment and should be included as part of the article. With access to online resources, my medical students do not need me to teach them “what”. They do need to be taught judgement. We are all exploring optimal ways of doing this.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

In answer to your question – It’s a shallow experience learning online Prashant. Even if you save money. That’s why the Open University, which emulates the mass and remote approach will never compete with a regular university because socialisation is just so important to the experience.
Its the same reason I’ve retired from work – remote working is nowhere near as much fun and insight as being in the office (and I couldn’t go back to the office as I’m covid vulnerable due to transplant).

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

It is, which is why I don’t advocate for the abolition of universities. I am of course playing devil’s advocate at little, but I’m completely serious about the gloomy scenarios that I think will play out without radical changes. And it is equally clear to me, not just UK universities but all universities globally who charge more than nominal fees are extremely vulnerable. When I was at Uni, both undergrad and postgrad, it never felt like universities were businesses. But sometime between then and now, they have transitioned into pure businesses with a clear if subtle sell model. Well, if you are patently a business, people who use you will treat you as such, with concomitant expectations of bang for buck – and the whole ‘affection for your alma mater’ thing kind of goes out the window, and the relationship becomes much more transactional, at which point you become vulnerable to the chill winds of technological pressure. It is also the case that universities no longer offer the kind of opportunities as the past to freewheel ideas, people and experiences, and again I am compelled to ask (since they are businesses who charge for services) if they are delivering the social experience they subtly claim they are offering. For example, huge swathes of students were forced into learning remotely for the best part of two years, but I don’t recall anyone being offered a refund on fees.

I want universities in the UK to survive but they cannot unless they reinvent the model they operate on two different fronts: firstly we as a country need to decide that these entities should not operate as businesses, but as education institutes, just like schools, but more complicated, and funded as such. Secondly at the teaching level, they probably need to all switch to flipped learning type systems, coupled with frequent tutorial-like, one-on-one bespoke teaching.

Last edited 1 month ago by Prashant Kotak
M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I have doubts about flipped learning. Tutorials and seminars are great, and they’ve been in use for a long time.
But the lecture format is the in person equivalent of a book or text that makes a sustained and fully integrated argument. The action of listening attentively, following the points and discerning the arc and structure of the argument, remembering it and ultimately pulling it apart and putting it back together to understand how it works, is an indispensable part of the higher order thinking university work is meant to cultivate.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Online platforms still can’t provide anything like the interaction that a classroom can. They try, but they don’t succeed. The quality of discussion is poor.
They don’t form relationships with students and the professors which is actually important in developing their ideas.
Students also don’t pass at the same rates, that’s well documented.
And while I have no data on this, I think you are much more likely to end up with graduates who are just little technicians. They’ve read the book and checked the boxes, but that’s about it.

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
1 month ago

Higher education is abolishing itself. And perhaps this won’t be such a bad thing, in the long run. As a writer and researcher I am consistently appalled by the narrowness of the texts I consult from the OUP and CUP.
Perhaps this whole episode will free intellectual enquiry and usher in a new Golden Age of Knowledge and Learning?

Curious Person
Curious Person
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

Yes, I see a new era of learning and inquiry on the far horizon. And between here and there, I see a Dark Age lasting several centuries.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
1 month ago

 “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Aristotle.
And so, the teaching profession attracts agitprop Lefties like flies to faeces, and the resultant corrupted education system disgorges a stream of enfeebled, brainwashed failures, seething with entitlement and confected outrage.
And we are surprised?
Why?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

Here are a couple of suggestions (but they are caveated because of the nature of knowledge in different disciplines):

For anyone wanting to do non-STEM subjects at Uni, have a compulsory break at 18 of a minimum of one year, maximum of three, where youngsters go into the world of work (at minimum wage) but placed by govt/education bodies. This is just a matter of creating incentives for companies such that they can offset what they pay out against tax, so they effectively get a freebie “little helper” which I’m sure they would buy into. (Not that there is anything ‘little’ about some burley 6’2 sixth former, but you know what I mean). The only reason to make a differentiation for STEM is that there is considerable evidence that the most creative period starts at around 18 (especially evident in off-the-chart mathematicians) and you wouldn’t want to lose that period.

Thereafter go back to free University education and higher education including accommodation for the first degree. I think young people would take a different attitude into Uni having some experience of the real world.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
1 month ago

I read English at Cambridge in the seventies, when postmodernism and critical theory were just beginning their long march into a faculty that today is home to the ludicrous woke troll Priyamvada Gopal, professor of post-colonial studies.

As it happens, I arrived on a scholarship via a northern grammar school from Sheffield, where Hallam was still the local polytechnic, focussed on delivering vocational HNDs to equip students on graduation to start careers in an industrial local economy that no longer exists.

While I think of myself more as a classical liberal than a cultural conservative, Mary Harrington’s closing question also applies to me: support the continued existence of English Lit degrees that transmit the canon – not blindly but as a living tradition (in the words of FR Leavis) with dynamic appraisal of its continued relevance to the changing realities of life and society today? Or join the VFM philistines?

My instinct is to fight back. There is hope as long as there remain people like Arif Ahmed MBE, Reader in Philosophy at Cambridge, and a leading voice in winning the battle to overturn the shameful decision to disinvite Jordan Peterson that is referenced in one of this article’s links.

But where existing institutions have been fully captured, that may require a readiness to support new alternatives. That would be a pity, as the costs would likely exclude today’s equivalent of me from accessing a mind-expanding and life-changing opportunity.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 month ago

There is much value in a degree in English, and the very least of it is the ability to coin a wonderful phrase such as “ludicrous woke troll”.

FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
1 month ago

Thanks! I’ve since read somewhere else that Sheffield Hallam is actually folding their Eng Lit course into their Creative Writing one, not closing it entirely, and strengthening a focus on writing skills for employment. This feels like some kind of return to its original vocational mission

Jeff Staines
Jeff Staines
1 month ago

Children should be leaving school with a firm foundation of English literature, and encouragement to set out on their own to read and enjoy more of it. Ditto history.
Modern languages are the biggest misuse of universities, though. There are plenty of dedicated language schools, private tutors, tandem programmes, conversation groups, countries where they actually speak the language, etc. etc. And you don’t need a BA to demonstrate that you speak and understand French or whatever, it’s immediately apparent to anyone else who can.
Have you ever met a foreigner with a university degree in English Language?

John Potts
John Potts
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Staines

Yes, I have Jeff. Quite a few, in fact – usually a combination of English language and literature(s), or English language and linguistics. Their command of English is often considerably superior to many native speakers of English. As to speaking and understanding a foreign language, it depends upon the level of competence that is required of the foreign language user. I can speak and understand French, German and Italian, but couldn’t possibly teach those languages, draw up a contract or write a book in them.

Jeff Staines
Jeff Staines
1 month ago
Reply to  John Potts

A 3-year bachelor’s won’t reach those levels either, and those are the courses that I’m specifically criticising. Of course specialised courses in translation, linguistics, literature or technical language have value, but the basics can and should be learned elsewhere.

John Potts
John Potts
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Staines

A 3-year bachelor’s won’t reach those levels either, and those are the courses that I’m specifically criticising.
That may be the case in the UK. I don’t know about the USA. In the country where I live, BA English students are expected to write all their course work, dissertations (several thousand words) etc in English.
I suspect we have a very different understanding of what a BA in a foreign language comprises. BA students of English here are not learning the “basics” of English as a language – those (and more) were learnt in grammar school by the age of 18 or 19.
To put things in another context – in the city where I live, in order to graduate with a BEd, all primary school teachers must reach the level of C1 in the Council of Europe Framework, defined as follows: A C1 level of English allows for a full range of functionality at work or in an academic setting. The C1 level would allow for full autonomy in a native English-speaking country.
And, in order to graduate, all secondary school teachers must reach C2: A C2 level of English is essentially a native level. It allows for reading and writing of any type on any subject, nuanced expression of emotions and opinions, and active participation in any academic or professional setting.
Note that these requirements are not for students wishing to graduate as language teachers, or as translators – they are for all primary school teachers, and all secondary school teachers of whatever subject(s).
As I wrote above, many grammar school leavers already possess at least a C1 level of English before they go to university.
If UK university BA courses are teaching the basics of a foreign language, then something is grievously wrong with the A-levels in those languages.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  John Potts

I got my solitary French sonnet published in the French Literary Review four or five years ago:-

Sonnet 141
Après avoir ces cent quarante écrits,
je suis épuisé et me considère
une langue craquée léchante, dedans, un puits
empli d’une boue visqueuse, d’une croûte grossière.
Il en reste quinze encore, coincés, cachés:
des crapauds rotants que les murs moussus
font résonner. Enfin, bloquée, fâchée,
la langue, toute sèche et vulgaire devenue,
va bifurquer, et désormais siffler.
Chaque midi, pour un instant, le soleil
éclaire cette vie grimpante – viens regarder!
Voilà en bas, frétillante et vermeille,
la langue, les crapauds fugitifs, la chasse
avant que l’ombre couvre la disgrâce.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff Staines

I speak sub-fluent French, and only did the A level.

Paul Walsh
Paul Walsh
1 month ago

I have long wondered about the value of Universities. Originally they were knowledge centres, with books, where learned people could gather. I am amazed how little impact the internet has had on them. Access to the best lecturers and texts could be on line.
Schools boast of the percentage of children that go to university, HR departments demand a degree before interview and parents want the best for their children, so I guess this is all part of the inertia.
Of course some courses such as medicine, sciences and art have an important practical element and I guess face to face debate and discussion are important in learning. Perhaps they will slowly be re-imagined, rather than abolished.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Walsh

I am an idealist. In my view practical subjects have no place in Universities. They should be reserved for pure theory. The real advantage of this is that the search for knowledge will not therefore be corrupted by the desire to earn, or the bare necessity of earning, money. The disadvantage (not, to me, a major one) is that such Universities would have to return to being for rich people and selected recipients of private patronage, as in the old days.
The reason that Universities produced a Wittgenstein, or any other major figure of theoretical enquiry in whatever field, is precisely that the need to earn a living did not occur.
‘Practical’ students do not need to examine the theoretical basis of knowledge. All they need, as in the case of a doctor, is up-to-date practical knowledge, the latest methods, whereby s/he will not kill his/her patient.

Last edited 1 month ago by Arnold Grutt
Michael James
Michael James
1 month ago

Paul Johnson once listed the three greatest disasters of the 20th century: two world wars and the spread of education.

Last edited 1 month ago by Michael James
Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 month ago

Michael Sandal was on here recently. We don’t have to abolish anything – it would be a strange conservative that did. But we need a whole sea-change in how we view work, non-academic credentials, vocational training, trades, etc. Once all of these things are sufficiently valued, the universities can go back to doing what they used to do, which is to the reproduction of high culture, as well as fundamental scientific research.

This sounds like pie-in-the sky until you realise that AI is coming after the jobs of the credentialled laptop classes – the future is more hand-work and care-work, as well as leisure time to contemplate the meaning of life – life roles best suited to vocational schools and traditional universities, respectively. And there is no reason why a person can’t do both!

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

It is far from clear that AI will eliminate all these jobs. It is always the case that automation eliminates some jobs and activities – but others are created and grow. These things have been predicted for decades – yet non-manufacturing work has only ever increased.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago

No need to abolish, just fund STEM subjects only; humanities can continue if there’s enough interest but paid for privately.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

I agree with you but for exactly opposite reasons. The types of intelligence required for theory and practice are radically different.

William Hickey
William Hickey
1 month ago

A question from a Texan.

Is it legal in Britain for employers to administer intelligence tests for prospective employees?

It isn’t in the US since Griggs v Duke Power in 1971. IQ tests were found to be “unfair” to blacks. (They scored low, imagine that?)

That’s meant employers have had to rely on a college credential much more than in earlier times to cull out dummies. It also meant that students had to go to college to get a good job, instead of learning an industry by working in it after high school — and forgoing English Lit and Philosophy 101.

If British employers don’t have the same “black manacles” on them as American businessmen do, then why are smart, ambitious kids bothering with Sheffield at all?

Last edited 1 month ago by William Hickey
Zach Bartell
Zach Bartell
17 days ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Are all white Texans klansmen, Bill? Or just the ones without a college education?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 month ago

“when, instead of transmitting canonical culture, arts faculties inveigh against the “canon” as such, there’s little to stop cultural conservatives adding their voices to the philistine chorus demanding that institutions demonstrate value for money, or face the axe.”
Describes me perfectly.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

To the philistine chorus the idea is that the canon is a type of prison, whereas it is in fact a giant sign pointing to freedom.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 month ago

If one reads Heather MacDonald’s work, it may prevent throwing out the baby with the very disgusting university bathwater. English lit could be a useful degree to developing useful and thoughtful humans. The fact that currently these degrees are offered to extract money from the unsuspecting, and indoctrinate them in the process, doesn’t mean it is hopeless. (Check out Ralston College! – I’d hire someone with an English lit degree from there, once they are up and fully running)

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
1 month ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

or University of Austin.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

Abolish Government subsidised student loans.
Let students take any course they want provided they themselves can pay for it, either through parental handouts, by working or by taking out private loans.
Let universities charge whatever they want and the market can stand.
Allow the free market free reign.

Last edited 1 month ago by William Shaw
Chris Cope
Chris Cope
1 month ago

The question we must surely ask is how do we develop the next generation? Specific subjects will have direct value to the business world. Should they be degree courses or something else?

Equally do we preserve humanities and arts subjects for the rich only? To me that would be a shot in one’s own cultural foot. And actually many of these subjects teach soft skills that email highly useful.

Certainly the current loan system helps no one and the target percentages for students in HE are just arbitrary. Some joined up thinking is long overdue.

Peter Mateja
Peter Mateja
1 month ago

I absolutely support conservatives abolishing themselves from all higher education, and thereby removing competition for some of our highest paying jobs…