Universities still control access to nearly all the major professions, from law, engineering and medicine to journalism, finance and teaching. The earnings gap between the university-educated and those with vocational qualifications remains consistently large in favour of the former. But the more fundamental fact remains that real democracy and a truly integrated society require citizens who have had the chance to develop skills such as independent inquiry and critical thinking, neither of which need mean devaluing other skills. Despite their own increasing corporatisation, universities still provide an environment that expands our capacity to think and engage creatively with other people's ideas. Of course, informed, sceptical and independent-minded citizens don't make ideal subjects for an increasingly plutocratic governing class.
Higher education, a shared resource, which ought to be available to all who seek it, has become yet another social responsibility outsourced towards private sector profit. In the process, it will spiral out of the financial reach of the vast majority of young people, again turning universities into the hereditary domain of the financially advantaged.I don't think university should be a right - there are plenty of people who turn up, do no work, cheat, and expect high grades because they're paying. But I do think that everybody has a right to give it a go, and to the highest quality of education. This is exactly what doesn't happen at the moment. Favoured institutions get all the money. Then they get the most innovative researchers and all the prestige. They provide smaller classes, more books and more personal attention to their students, who are largely drawn from private schools and the articulate middle classes. Places like mine struggle on with incompetent management aping the attitudes of the corporate world in place of a coherent commitment to education, while fewer and fewer staff teach bigger and bigger classes more and more often, leading to impersonal teaching and less research. Then we wonder why it's difficult to recruit and retain able students, while less able ones drop out because they need more help.
A mature democracy thrives by widening access to higher education. Corralling young people into vocational factory farms does not equal progress. We must fight hard to retain common ownership of education and have a real discussion about the role we want it to play in our lives and society.After all that whinging, cheer yourselves up with Jimmy Reid's rectorial lecture to Glasgow University students in 1972. No, seriously. It's so good that this recently-deceased communist trades unionist's speech was reprinted on the front page of the New York Times - how often does that happen? It's powerful, tender, thoughtful, passionate and communicates big ideas in human terms - the epitome of the perfect lecture.