Is Toby Young, former non-executive director at the Office for Students, right to denigrate (modern) university provision when he states, ‘why spend three years doing media studies at a second-rate university when you could find a better-paid job after getting a qualification in a skilled occupation at a further education college – and without a debt of £50,000?’
Or should we extend the novelist David Lodge’s defence of pre-92 universities – ‘cathedrals of the modern age [that] shouldn’t have to justify their existence by utilitarian criteria’ – to all institutions, enabling economically deprived students over-represented at ‘second-rate’ ones the opportunity to value education for its own sake?
Perhaps French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu got it right when he drew attention to the relational aspect of institutionalised education: ‘The point of my work is to show that culture and education aren’t simply hobbies or minor influences. They are hugely important in the affirmation of differences between groups and social classes and in the reproduction of those differences.’
What to make of these competing perspectives given our current technological revolution? An epochal shift in which human creativity and critical thinking are posited as desirable attributes as AI innovations render many established forms of human employment, historically dependent on the acquisition of a narrow set of practical skills, redundant.
Are universities even worth defending as a public good given their increasingly commercial orientation? Might these ‘cathedrals’ instead be usurped by not-for-profit spaces in which autodidacticism flourishes? How might this work for the sciences as well as the arts? Put starkly, do universities in their current iteration primarily exist to ordain the lackey intellectuals for whom they provide employment, albeit of an increasingly precarious nature?
Join our panel for an evening of debate as we reflect on what (modern) universities once were, and what they have become in an era of rapid sector expansion, diminished academic autonomy and increased managerial surveillance.