Friday 10 February 2012

Universities of the future: the minister speaks.

The University of Brighton awarded me an honorary degree today and I was dead chuffed to receive it. It came via the education department who have a great record. It was a wonderful occasion, and I felt all glowy. Looking at the graduating students' faces as they came up on to the stage and again at their families afterwards was a very warming thing to do on a very cold day. So, thank you University of Brighton. Thank you very much.

While I was sitting on the stage hearing the degrees that the graduates had studied for, I found myself thinking about the hypocritical stance adopted by education ministers and the right wing press in relation to degrees. They have orchestrated a sneering chorus mocking 'mickey mouse' degrees, hoping to recruit that section of the professional caste who are proud of their more academic degrees. But it's a lying recruitment speech they give, because the other part of their outlook is functionalist. It puts a price on everything, so that if, let's say, someone is studying catering management at university, their functionalist side would think this is good, it's 'upskilling' so that Britain can compete in the world market. So they try to ride both horses at the same time - traditionalist and functionalist. And then they think they sound convincing!

So I started composing an imaginary speech - the one that no minister would dare give - at a degree ceremony like the one I was at today.

 "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Minister!"

"Distinguished guests, Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen - all things considered, I'm very pleased to be here today at this second-rate university. I would have preferred to have been at an Oxbridge ceremony, but it seems as if they're freezing me out at the moment.

No matter. Well, not very much. No really. I'm not that bothered. Not at all.

Education is at the heart of everything. Oh yes. And so am I. Looking through this university's booklet for today, I'm delighted to see that some of the students are graduating from here with real degrees, like Geography and Law and English Literature. I'm interested in gold standards. That's what universities are for. Gold standard even though there are only two gold standard universities. So degrees like Geography make sense. They're gold standard subjects. But really - should universities be places where people footle their time away doing 'Cultural History, Memory and Identity'. What's that? Making photo albums or something?

And what's this? Hospitality Management? What's the point of that? If people want to run a cafe don't they just go into their father's business? That's how we do it in this country, don't we?

Now, I can see that the hall is full of parents and family of these unfortunate students. I suppose you were rather hoping that I would have encouraging words to say to you about your offspring's long years of work, your sacrifices to get them to where they are today.

Well, I'm not.

I'll leave that to the bleeding heart liberals who skulk about the corridors of universities like this. But it's not always going to be like this. We're going to weed them out. Believe me. What with our innovative and exciting policy on university fees, and and our necessary but clever cuts in budgets, we're going to get universities back to being the elite institutions they once were.

After all, in today's climate, we can't afford higher education for everyone who might benefit from it.  Not any more. The truth is that the nation is becoming over-educated. What is the point of someone doing a degree when the job they end up with is stacking shelves in Sainsbury's?

Yes, yes, yes, a minister standing where I'm standing now ten, twenty or thirty years ago wouldn't be saying this. He would be saying, learn, educate yourselves, expanding world economy, unlimited human potential, blah blah blah.

I'm not. I'm saying, forget all that. What we need now is some serious downgrading of people's hopes and aspirations. Especially if those people are poor. Maybe there are some poor people in the room. Well done. You got in before it got really tough. Next year, we're hoping there will be fewer of your type here and the year after, even fewer.

So, thank you for inviting me. If anyone knows someone at an Oxbridge college, I'm wondering if I could get on to this thingummyjig where Tory ministers become bosses of Oxbridge colleges. No? Well, I wouldn't expect anyone here would. Huh?

And what's this? A masters in nephrology? What's nephrology for goodness sake? Oh, it's something to do with medicine, is it? Fair enough. If the graduate of that particular malarky has got any sense, he won't hang about in the NHS. Set up a Nephrology company, sonnyjim and sell it back to the NHS at twice the price.

That's the way to do it."