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On the Expansion of the Universities

Grade inflation is a universal human tendency. There are badges of esteem, which relate in complex ways to feelings of self-esteem, and the desire to acquire these is always present as is the pressure to make them available. Thus, for example, in societies in which there is a defined aristocracy the proportion of the population who are aristocrats tends to rise. It was about fifteen per cent in both France and Russia before their respective revolutions and seven per cent in the German Empire of 1870-1918. In England it has never risen above a fraction of one per cent and I have always believed that small proportion was the key to survival and that the crucial trick was the invention of other honours such as knighthoods and life peerages to reward the ambitious and the worthy. Our versions of the noblesse de la robe were neither noble nor hereditary.

The phenomenon of grade inflation applies to much more humble things than grand social ranks. When did you last see a bottle of vin ordinaire, for example? Or a pass degree? There were no individual medals for team sports when I was a lad; you might get a photograph of the team with the cup. By comparison, I remember one of my sons coming back from a football presentation event with six different kinds of plastic statuette. He dumped them in the cellar and they’re probably still there.

The English have traditionally joked about foreign levels of promotion, about organisations that were “all chiefs and no Indians” and about Hispanic armies with more officers than men. Perhaps the most elaborate of these jokes was W.S.Gilbert’s, expressed in the form of a narrative song sung by Don Alhambra in The Gondoliers. This tells of a king with a tendency to promote everybody so that

Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats

And bishops in their shovel hats

Were plentiful as tabby cats.

The account of mass promotion concludes with one of Gilbert’s most famous lines:

When everybody’s somebodee (sic)

Then no-one’s anybody.

My late colleague Fred Hirsch in Social Limits to Growth offered a penetrative theoretical insight into grade inflation because most of the inflated items are close to his model of a “positional good”. Positional goods are valued because of the way they place you in society; thus their supply cannot be increased without reducing their unit value. Some of them, such as prestigious addresses, have a natural limit on supply, but others, including university degrees, do not. Given the endemic pressure to increase supply we should not be surprised to see the proportion of graduates grow. Fred was certainly familiar with that process in his native USA and may well have known the comment Arthur Miller puts into the mouth of his factory owner, Joe Keller, in All My Sons (1947):

It’s getting so the only dumb ones left are the bosses . . . you stand on the street today and spit, you hit a college man . . .

Actually, Fred, who died in 1978, thought that the British were far too sensible to go down this route and for a long time he seemed to be right. Eventually, though, we have caught up and some: Scotland with 54% of the age cohort in higher education is one of the world’s highest on the quoted figures – though the figures have to be considered and analysed very carefully.

University degrees per se can be considered as being almost entirely positional goods and they have clearly experienced social devaluation. Nobody is now instructing their children, as my late mother instructed me, to add “Esquire” to the envelopes for my “thank you” letters if the recipient was a university graduate. But that is not to say that university education is merely a positional good. That, surely, might be expanded indefinitely without diminishing its value? The questions therefore must be do the 45% of the age cohort who would not have traditionally attended university, but who do now, enjoy it? And how much do they gain from it, not compared with those left out of the process, but compared with similar persons in previous generations?

Of course, I can’t give a definitive answer to these questions, but my experience suggests some pretty pessimistic hypotheses. I’ve always been aware that most people don’t like serious intellectual effort; it is something forced on them by social norms and practices. Actually, of the dozen undergraduates doing PPE in my college in my year I think only two of us really enjoyed the work. In a kind of diversification late in my career and after it I was made aware of academic situations in which there was barely a remaining pretence of serious intellectual interest. I have been informed of organised complaints because a twenty five page reading was considered too long and of circumstances in which a 30% attendance rate at compulsory seminars was thought of as a good result, given the students’ need to earn a living. When I was aware of a lack of intellectual interest among students my mind went back to the wonderfully witty Richmal Crompton and the attitude of Just William to formal education. On being hectored by a teacher on how lucky he is to be in school when boys a century earlier were routinely sent up chimneys, William comments that he’d rather go up a chimney any day than have to listen to this particular teacher banging on.

So, the nightmare scenario: You are at “Uni” because you fear that you will never get a decent job unless you do go and because you don’t want to feel inferior for the rest of your life. You don’t much enjoy academic work and your debts are increasing. But you are gradually becoming aware that your degree, although likely to be “good” (grade inflation) is unlikely to get you the kind of job you aspire to (I have lectured to sports journalism students, for example, none of whom is going to get a job as a sports journalist. You might argue that they will get a lot out of it, but it’s very different from traditional legal or medical education when the overwhelming majority entered the profession for which they had been trained). You are also becoming aware that there is a positional good that they haven’t shared out and that is the name of the university. I have taught people who have come to these realisations while having to hold down two jobs and having family responsibilities as well. I was not critical when such a person fell fast asleep in my lecture. Back in the day I only had to juggle my academic interests with my sporting and acting careers (and my interests in sex and alcohol). My education was elitist and dilettante, but we have to ask whether education that is not in the least elitist or dilettante is actually worth anything?

Political debate often assumes unquestioningly that expanded higher education and prosperity are causally connected. Of course, Sweden is much richer than Burundi and has many more people in higher education, but the causal process is largely the other way round. If you look at the comparisons between “developed” countries there are two significant observations which undermine any idea that higher education per se is good for economies. The first is that the definitions of “higher education” and “university” are not just very varied but politically driven and can be changed by decree; no need to dwell on that point in this country. The second is that the statistics which do exist seem to deny rather than confirm a positive role for higher education. Among “developed” countries some of the more economically threatened are at the top of the list (such as Russia and Scotland on 54%) while prosperous Switzerland on 40% is near the bottom, suggesting the hypothesis that lack of alternatives and the desire to exit may be important in the pattern of motivation.

The ultimate indictment of expansion may be its role in the restriction of social mobility. I cannot dwell on this at length and, in any case, have written of it in more detail elsewhere. I concluded that forms of hierarchical class structure are universal, but that levels of social mobility vary enormously. Historically, the church and the navy were very important conduits of social mobility. But the process peaked in Victorian England, based mainly on skill and enterprise. In the twentieth century universities were extremely important: to take a personal example they were the primary means whereby my wife and four of her brothers achieved highly paid jobs from the basis of a very poor (albeit highly respectable) background by diligently plodding up the educational ladder. But when the proportion of graduates goes up from 5% to 50% this possibility diminishes dramatically. John Major will surely be the last non-graduate prime minister as many of his contemporaries will be the last non-graduates in their elevated roles. Meanwhile, the world fills with graduate clerks and one fears for the ultimate social and political consequences.

Lincoln Allison January 2018

(An edited version of this essay appeared in Times Higher Education in March 2018.)