I first entered the hallowed halls of a university a long long time ago. So long that my lecturers were monks in full monkish gear, there were theologians, we ate in a Refectory, wore gowns and mortar boards for graduation, and lived in “colleges” (well, some of us did, the wealthier ones); there were cloisters (sort of!) somewhere, and a tower where bells were rung for the call to prayers (no, made up the bells).
In those far off times a university was basically for training priests (no, I wouldn’t have fitted in well!) but, human nature being what it is, I’m betting an equally significant part of its function was status and networking. Third sons of noblemen, smart young fellows from provincial towns, illegitimate sons of bishops, mixing together (drinking and wenching in taverns as much as talking in tutorials or libraries), making impressions, building up useful contacts, planning careers. Oh sure, some religiously dedicated souls, but they were destined for caves on mountain tops, or small parishes in Cheshire, not the corridors of ecclesiastical and secular power.
And so it remained for hundreds of years. Oh the student body no longer comprised priests, and the courses were widened, a little, from theology to classics and law, but the networking function remained the same. The graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Sydney, Melbourne, with the old university ties to prove it, could be assured of welcomes from those of the same alma mater in Board Rooms and Cabinet Rooms, and the glittering prizes that resulted.
Not a case though of the piece of calf skin or parchment signalling merit, intelligence, ability, knowledge. Not a case of the best and brightest converging on centres of excellence, academic melting pots where the poor boy from the sticks competed on the level playing fields of Oxford with the rich boy from the home counties. Oh, no, the war for success in life had already been won on the very unlevel playing fields of Eton.
Oxford (and the others) was not there to demonstrate merit, but to confirm status. To have gone to university was not a demonstration of intellectual prowess but a demonstration of wealth, breeding, school history, correct pronunciation, correct dress, correct use of knife and fork when eating. The student ranks were drawn from the right kind of families and would become the right kind of people. Would become the next generation of rulers of society, under one title or another. Would eat the little people, from public schools, red brick colleges, alive.
Eventually though one or two people here and there realised that this closed shop education, while undoubtedly efficient, was producing ruling classes as inbred (intellectually and genetically) as the Egyptian Ptolemies. That there needed to be some infusion of new genetics into the courtyard pond, some little fish among the big fish. And, further, that universities should provide advanced education in a whole range of new disciplines more important to society than a little Latin and even less Greek. And, finally, most difficult of all, that, heavens, it is like confessing a murder, female persons might benefit from a higher education.
It also came to be realised that stirring up this rich educational stew with all its new ingredients would not only benefit the likely lads (and, shudder, lasses) from the boondocks, but would also benefit society as a whole. Not just because applying the best minds of a generation, irrespective of their breeding, to all kinds of scientific and other investigations in an intellectual ferment generated inside the ivied walls, would lead to great advances in many fields, but because those minds would question the unquestionable, provide new ways of thinking, looking at the world.
Oh bliss was it in that educational dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!
Couldn’t last of course. For two reasons. The kind of people who were still, recognising the right tie colour (light blue, dark blue, matters not the shade) among the born to rule, running things, had two strong objections to this new style of university (well, three counting its universality). First, if god had meant research to be free and open he wouldn’t have invented copyright. All this nonsense about science for science’s sake, “pure” science. Why, science is applied or it is pointless. And, furthermore, applied by the corporations run by boards of people like us to make money. Big money.
And second, the last thing people running a tight ship in which there is a place for everyone and everyone knows their place, stowed away neatly, before the mast, after the mast, and don’t you dare enter the wrong mess, the lower ranks have such unpleasant eating habits, is free-thinking. Goodness gracious, if the monks in the medieval universities had allowed free thinking there would have been atheists in the ranks in no time. Questioning of the order of things. Questioning whether kings were divinely ordained to rule, whether the poor were meant to be always with us, whether the Sun went round the Earth, whether it was really compulsory to vote Tory or die in foreign fields for king and country, whether it was possible to keep burning fossil fuels without destroying the planet, all kinds of dangerous questions. It’s what comes of people getting above themselves, trying to rise above their station in life.
A while ago a study by a major accountancy firm was released which concluded that Australian universities had to change their “business model” or most wouldn’t survive much longer. “Business model”? University? Do those words belong together again now as they did before? Oh yes.
Slash funding to Pure Science and the Arts. No more free university education, no more scholarships, huge loans which students must repay. More fee paying students from overseas who, paying big fees, expect a parchment at the end, guaranteed. Bring big business into universities, he who pays the piper calls the tune, and owns the music copyright.
We are back, in fact, to where we began. Training now for the priesthood of big business rather than the church, but still a religion, the religion of capitalism. No questioning that religion today, just as there was no questioning the religion of 600 years ago. And networking back where it belonged – between people wearing the right ties, using the right spoon, born in fact with the right spoon in the mouth. The Vice-Chancellor’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world again.
Big people eating little people is wrong. For one brief shining hour you could learn that in universities. But the simple folk don’t do that any more.
The nobles are back in charge.