Whoever governs this country next musty proclaim a commitment to higher education in the broadest sense, argues Simon Heffer.
By Simon Heffer
Published: 6:01PM GMT 12 Feb 2010
Only a fool would deny that public spending must be cut to relieve our economic mess: but only a fool, equally, would cut it as the Government is doing. All over the public sector there are overpaid bureaucrats doing pointless jobs who should be invited to test their skills in the private sector without delay. Our welfare system haemorrhages money on the undeserving poor and encourages young, able-bodied people not to look for work. There is reluctance to cut waste in more important areas too, such as in the civil service establishment of the Ministry of Defence. Instead, we seek to cripple the future of this country by savaging our universities.
Sussex University is one of the better establishments of our higher education system. It is proposing, because of cuts, to emasculate its history department by scrapping research into, and in-depth teaching of, British history before 1700 and European before 1900. One should not need a GCSE in the subject to see the insanity of this. Our country remains shaped today by the Reformation, the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, which happened between the 1530s and the 1680s. No one who does not understand the importance and nature of those events can understand why Britain post-1700 was as it was. And, of course, those events were part of a continuum that (working backwards) included the Wars of the Roses, the Hundred Years’ War, the Crusades, the Norman Conquest, the arrival of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, the Roman invasion, and so on. For a university to be so limited attacks the credibility of the institution.
The European history restriction is even more damaging. The First World War began, effectively, in 1870, when the French foolishly thought it would be a good idea to provoke a war with Prussia. Centuries of history before that have a direct bearing on the problems of the 20th century on our continent. What serious university can afford to stop exploring them?
This problem has various roots. The Government’s notion – pushed aside, now, for economic reasons – that 50 per cent of young people should go to university is mad. Half of our young people are not equipped to cope with a university education of a serious nature. This is not because they are thick: it is because Labour’s appalling schools do not teach them to the required standard by A-level. The better universities have to do remedial teaching in subjects such as maths when students arrive for their courses. Money that ought to be spent giving genuinely clever students a good education on a demanding degree course in a reputable university is instead thrown away on Mickey Mouse subjects in failing institutions. This has to stop. Funding needs to be concentrated, in these hard times, on excellence.
This Government hasn’t a clue. The fact that universities are the responsibility of Lord Rumba of Rio – the Business Secretary – says it all. Labour sees universities in a purely utilitarian way. It is interested only in vocational courses. People who want to read subjects that genuinely educate them but may lead to a job unrelated to their degree – history, English, modern languages, classics, for example – are regarded as a drain on society. The idea of a university as a place of learning for its own sake, enriching and sustaining the culture of our people and spreading understanding of it, is regarded as absurd. Whoever governs this country next must put an education secretary in charge of universities. It must reinvent polytechnics. It must lift the cap on tuition fees. It must proclaim a commitment to higher education in the broadest sense. Then, perhaps, historians will allowed to discover once more what happened before 1700.
Published in the Telegraph: