Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish political parties have generally been positive about widening participation in higher education. In Westminster, the Blair government set an ambitious target of half the country going to university but twice broke their manifesto promises not to increase tuition fees, then the Liberal Democrats immediately reneged on their 2010 manifesto commitment to oppose further increases in tuition fees, when offered the chance to join a Coalition government, and now the Conservative Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, seems to have completed a hat-trick of own goals from the biggest English political parties by attacking what he derides as ‘low-value’ degrees from universities which are ‘ripping-off’ students.
Higher education is about higher values than the league table mentality that ascribes ‘low value’ to certain universities or degrees based on graduates’ first destination employment statistics. These are distorted by a variety of factors, including the rhetoric of ‘top universities’ beloved of these politicians, but also the state of the economy for which those politicians have responsibility. University is, in any event, about more than employment, and employment is about more than first destinations.
Rishi Sunak’s first job paid well but many of the graduates of less famous colleges and universities pursue a vocation in, for instance, nursing or teaching, which contribute wonderful value and values to society, despite relatively low pay. The Prime Minister is rightly lauding apprenticeships, sometimes called technical or vocational qualifications, which I too believe deserve parity of esteem with more abstract degrees such as the Prime Minister’s in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. But degrees with a vocation also merit that parity of esteem with vocational training. Indeed, as the words indicate, they have the same roots from the Latin ‘vocare’ to call. Pursuing such a calling is a noble endeavour, whether or not someone else values your life choices.
As I have pointed out at graduations over the years, so-called ‘drop-outs’ from education have gone on to greatness despite their first destinations not matching up to the pay of Rishi Sunak’s. The patron saint of Europe, St Benedict, dropped out of the mainstream over 1500 years ago and went to live as a hermit in a cave. When he was ready to be more sociable, there were attempts by dissidents within the first two communities he established to poison him. This is good experience for leadership in faith communities, universities and politics. Benedict learned resilience and created a Rule which has survived with almost no changes ever since, inspiring many to aspire to live in communities with the highest values. The Rule begins with the injunction to listen. Politicians who pontificate on universities committed to widening partnership seldom spend time visiting such universities and listening to students, staff, governors and alumni who value their diverse experiences.
There is a familiar pattern in university life. A ‘new’ subject is offered at a new university, such as Events Management at Leeds Metropolitan and Bournemouth. This is widely derided but is then copied. By the time I joined Leeds Met, 60 universities were offering the same course. Events from Glastonbury to the Olympics, you might have noticed, are big business but also nourish the soul.
In my time at Leeds Met, our statement of character and vision said that we aimed to be a university of festivals and partnerships. I proposed one of our honorary doctors, Brendan Foster, as Chancellor because he epitomised that social entrepreneurial spirit. In graduations there, I liked to use the metaphor of his Great North Run, the world’s greatest half-marathon, and of the London Marathon. Lifelong learning is a marathon, not a sprint. These mass distance events embrace world-class athletes as well as those of us who are running for fun, for charity or to improve our health and fitness. The latter group do not hold back the elite, if the occasion is well-organised. On the contrary, each inspires the other. The sight of thousands of runners wearing shirts for research into Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s has always stirred the emotions and promoted philanthropy which has helped to lead to the research breakthroughs we are now seeing in the news. The same is true in education. Those attending an extra-mural class, prompted by an interest fostered by television programmes on archaeology, for instance, or a course to help them return to work, are in the same community as world-class researchers and teachers. Each group inspires the other. This was the experience of William Temple, William Beveridge and R H Tawney at Toynbee Hall and in the Workers’ Educational Association at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Pioneering in higher education often comes from the peripheries, from the marginalised, such as the experiments of women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, or the church colleges in the nineteenth century which educated and trained teachers and nurses, which turned under-valued vocations into graduate professions. Other examples abound. For instance, to take an example perhaps closer to the government’s heart, the whole notion of Business Schools has been poached by the oldest universities from the experiments of the polytechnics.
Professor Ian Markham and I have co-edited a book on university life published in this month of Rishi Sunak’s attack on universities and, more positively, this month of many graduations all over the UK. My essay is entitled, ‘The Serendipity of Hope in the Peripheral Vision of a University’. Ian’s, with his colleague Joe Thompson, is on slavery reparations, which they are pioneering in the USA. In between our essays, other contributors include former students, staff, governors and partners. Reading the diverse essays might convince you, or even the Prime Minister, that ‘serendipity’ means more than it is usually taken to indicate, as does ‘hope’, as does ‘university’.
Indeed, the lessons of this book can apply more broadly to the body politic and to the body civic. The way I would put this is that, properly understood, what can really transform individuals, communities and societies is radical hope. Political parties should now be designing programmes for government which live out the spirit of radical hope. Indeed, that is how I would recommend judging their next manifestos, along with monitoring if the winner or winners can find it within themselves to stick to their promises and turn them into action. If they do not, then civic or civil society will do our best anyway, as has been the case for colleges and universities through the ages. This is in the Temple tradition of faith in the public square.
The reason why I call my Twitter account ‘paradoxbridge’ is because I believe there is a paradox in thinking about universities. Everyone knows that Oxford and Cambridge are great universities. But it does not follow that other universities are not great. Even if it did, the people who talk about ‘top’ universities often do not understand what has made Oxford and Cambridge great. It is partly that they are each made up of over thirty smaller communities, called colleges, which means students and staff can get to know one another across disciplines and other divides, while the colleges can experiment, with new courses and new cohorts. It is also because this collegial nature encourages extra-curricular engagement with opportunities to stretch mind, body and soul. These twin strengths are missed when people focus only on traditional degree subjects, such as my own in Law, and only on degree results or first destination employment.
On the contrary, the true genius of university education is that what prove to be the deepest influences on you in the long run are often people, places, experiences, ideas and graces which you hardly noticed when they first came into your student life. At graduations this summer, graduands, families and friends should focus not so much on any short-term worries about first destinations as on the latent value and values which will yield their mysteries in the coming decades, making a difference to our ultimate destinies.
Simon Lee is professor of law at Aston University and emeritus professor of jurisprudence at Queen’s University Belfast. He has led two award-winning institutions committed to widening participation in higher education, Liverpool Hope University College and Leeds Metropolitan University. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and Yale Law School. He is the co-editor, with Ian Markham, of The Serendipity of Hope (published by Pickwick, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, in July 2023). Simon Lee is also the chair of the board of trustees of the William Temple Foundation. @paradoxbridge firstname.lastname@example.org