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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Elite Universities Should Be Eliminated

Even when their admissions processes aren’t corrupt, elite universities provide little benefit to society at large.

By now it has escaped the attention of no one that the United Kingdom has been badly governed for quite a long while, and that its misrulers were mostly educated in Oxford. Gordon Brown slipped in for a couple of years with his Edinburgh history degree, but otherwise you need to go back before the Second World War, to Neville Chamberlain, to find a prime minister who procured a university education somewhere other than on the banks of the Cherwell. Around one-fourth of current M.P.s studied in Oxford or Cambridge—“Oxbridge”—and a study by the Sutton Trust found a similar proportion of the CEOs of leading U.K. corporations (among those educated in the U.K.). The Oxbridge contingent includes more than 70 percent of senior judges, around half of U.K. diplomats, and more than one-third of journalists at major U.K. media outlets.

No surprise there, one might argue, and maybe nothing to deplore. Oxbridge entrants have passed a rigorous selection process based on the skills cultivated and then tested in schools. One would hope these would be not entirely disjoint from the skills that bring success in one’s adult career. If young people were merely ranked by their school attainment, with perhaps additional stringent testing and interviews to better differentiate the top end, and then the names of the highest one percent inscribed on a secret list sealed in a vault for several decades, we should not be surprised to find the generation’s most accomplished strongly represented on the list. 

Unlike the American elite, in their hedera-hallowed institutions, no one gains their Oxbridge place because of a parent’s celebrity, donation to the college, or their phenomenal skills on the golf course. In 2002, for instance, Tony Blair’s son Euan was rejected from Trinity College Oxford, something that would be almost unthinkable for the reasonably bright child of a sitting U.S. president, particularly when the father was an alumnus of the same university (albeit, in Blair’s case, a different college). Admissions decisions in U.K. universities, while they vary tremendously—from rigid points-based systems to special examinations to the famous and much-derided interviews at Oxford and Cambridge—are made by academics in the relevant subject area. They are supposed to consider exclusively academic criteria; in the first instance academic achievement, as manifested in schoolwork, exams, and interviews, but also judgement of perhaps not yet realized academic potential. Interference by fundraisers would be seen as scandalous, and by athletic coaches simply absurd. Of course, any system where rare and highly desired goods are distributed without charging a market price is vulnerable to corruption, and I am sure that admissions at Oxford and Cambridge are not entirely immune. 

Nonetheless, the point stands that Oxbridge undergraduates are a genuine aristocracy of intellect—or, if not intellect, then at least of teenage intellectual achievement—unlike the intentionally indecipherable melange of academic excellence and inherited privilege and prestige that counterpart American institutions recruit. Add to that the tutelage of some of the world’s finest minds, in both lectures and personal tutorials, intellectually demanding courses pitched toward the high ability of this select class, and the intellectual growth fostered by consorting in your spare time for three or four years with similarly brilliant contemporaries, and we could reasonably see nothing but meritocratic striving unbound in the Oxbridge alumni scaling the heights of the British (and global) economy, culture, and government. These are the future leaders of Britain, who have selected themselves by their raw talent, and by the assiduous cultivation of their talents by themselves and their parents over 18 years. Our ancient universities are, in this telling, merely honing the skills that this causa sui elite will need in their special roles, along with making a few introductions.

And yet…

While intellectual talent bloweth where it listeth, it is hard not to notice that the Oxbridge spirit dwells primarily in a relatively small number of secondary schools—mostly, but not exclusively, fee-paying private schools—and in the upper echelons of families by household income. Furthermore, there is at least a widespread belief that the Oxford or Cambridge diploma is in itself an overwhelming talisman of success, augmented by the connections forged with other future leaders in three or four years of joint academic toil.

The response has tended to fall within very narrow bounds: either Oxford and Cambridge are jewels, whose incomparable luster would be dulled by any change; or Oxford and Cambridge are jewels that need to be shared with a more representative cross-section of the British population. It seems that almost every year there is renewed debate in the U.K. press over the relative success or failure of the latest round of admissions in increasing the representation of state school pupils, or various underprivileged groups (including residents of the north of England), or over the injustice suffered by some individual token of the meritorious middle class, who is presumed to have been shunned for low manners or insufficiently posh accent. This year the U.K. government generated an epic scandal with a biased algorithm for generating fantasy marks for the cancelled A-level exams, shutting less-privileged students out of top universities, then reversed course by raising everyone’s marks, flooding the universities with more matriculants than they can cope with.

More elite university places. Cake for everyone! As regards Oxbridge, the implication is that we just need to crack the whip over a few antediluvian old-boy dons, clear out the Augean sherry cellars, and then Oxbridge can go back to serving the nation with honor and dignity and due ceremony. Like the monarchy. But after having toiled a dozen years in this academic fairyland I have come to a different conclusion: These jewels are blood diamonds, extracted from the work of average citizens for the benefit of an undeserving elite. As currently constituted they cannot help but foster toxic inequality and negative-sum competitiveness in Britain. The fierce competition for these polished baubles is inimical to education, corroding individual lives and the social fabric. As with real diamonds there is likely no harm in locking up those we have behind glass in a museum, for the enjoyment of those who enjoy the glitter; but there is no corrective to the ongoing damage other than to break the society’s entrancement with these diamonds, so that we may abolish inevitably destructive practices and destructive institutions.

“But meritocracy… ” Oxford and Cambridge, along with the whole higher education hierarchy based on ruthlessly competitive admissions, are supposed to be the engine of meritocracy. We may imagine here a dialogue between a champion of meritocracy—call her Ayn—and a more skeptical figure, whom I will call Hannah, as she begins by quoting Hannah Arendt.

Hannah: “Meritocracy contradicts the principle of equality, of an equalitarian democracy, no less than any other oligarchy.”

Ayn: Meritocracy means rule by the best, rule by the most competent. Would you rather live under a Victorian civil service staffed by louche second sons of the faded aristocracy, prepared by a few years translating Virgil? Even a king, when ill, must bow to the wisdom of his physician, and he must allow his generals to lead his armies in battle. And these experts should be the most capable of carrying out these tasks.

Hannah: Those Victorians thought translating Virgil was the essence of “merit.” It was their entrenched power that allowed them to define “merit,” in such a way that no crofter’s son—not to mention a daughter—would have the chance to accumulate it. 

Ayn: I regret, as much as anyone, the wasted potential of a working-class child whose native brilliance was squandered by societal neglect. But I can have a soft heart without a soft head, and that’s what you would need to ignore that the mature adult, however he or she got that way, lacks mental skill and intellect. You can’t say, we’ll make up for the privation you suffered early in your life by giving you an important job where you will make life-and-death decisions. If the pilot was hired to compensate for injustice, thank you, but I’ll forego my seat on that flight.

Hannah: No one is saying that people don’t need to be qualified for their jobs. But why should we go out of our way to mark those people who have grown up in privilege with more honor and material goods?

Ayn: Why would people hone their skills for essential jobs without compensation? It sounds like you’re advocating a socialist assignment of tasks. That doesn’t work. Even in strictly communist states of the 20th century talented athletes and scientists were given special remuneration, privileges, and honours to keep them from withholding their labor or fleeing abroad.

Hannah: Even if we accept that there is a market price for skilled labor, there is nothing in any economic theory to require that “unto everyone who has shall be given more.” The child of wealthy, educated parents, trained in a luxurious independent school, or the better-appointed state schools, is most capable of continuing his or her training with reduced assistance. Those who have been deprived of educational opportunity by their local environment or family circumstances, but who are nonetheless driven to advance their education as adults, should be honored for their efforts, provided with the most talented teachers, and introduced to inspiring environments that might bind them (and their descendants) to the venerable traditions of academia, that should be a patrimony to all people.

What about research excellence? Germany, with a remarkably flat university landscape, has been engaged for most of the 21st century in an effort, termed the “Excellence Initiative,” to create elite universities. It is easy to understand how the glittering success of Harvard or Cambridge might attract the attention and envy of officials concerned with raising the intensity and stature of their nation’s research effort. But just as the social and political dominance of elite university graduates may reflect more the selective effect of admissions, selective hiring would produce concentrations of excellent research regardless of whether this concentration was itself promoting more or better research. 

Is there evidence that bringing the most accomplished scholars together in a few select places increases the quantity or quality of scholarship? Perhaps unsurprisingly, few research leaders have subjected this question to rigorous scrutiny. A 2006 study of publication statistics in economics found that a modest career enhancement for researchers at leading institutions in the 1970s had disappeared by the 1990s, a trend that the authors attributed to technological advances that lowered the barriers to communication and collaboration between institutions. A more recent study of mathematics research found no significant change in the productivity boost of elite universities over time, but found that this “boost” was almost always negative: researchers at top universities, and particularly those with larger endowments, produced less high-quality research than would have been expected based on the same researchers’ records at less prestigious institutions. (To be fair, this may be merely regression to the mean, as selection for the faculty of an elite university typically requires that one have already produced impressive research elsewhere. Lightning rarely strikes twice. But that in itself undermines the cult-of-genius rationale for the elite university.)

In any case, universities are not research institutes. The research university has always justified itself by the claim of synergy between research and education—what the physicist Bertram Bowden famously called “drinking from a running stream” of teachers still engaged in advancing their own knowledge, rather than from “the green mantle of a stagnant pool.” Unless we suppose that the stagnant pool is quite good enough after all for hoi polloi, we should aim to divert the intellectual torrent through the widest range of institutions, and so to the widest possible range of students. The “great minds,” assuming that they exist and that we can identify them, should then be dispersed rather than concentrated.

Universities are wellsprings of learning, connecting the past to the future. If there is any resource that our society produces that is unlimited and non-excludable (to adopt for a moment the jargon of economics) it must be learning. In Britain and America we monetize this plenitude by sealing it within fortresses of hierarchy and prestige. We cannot own the truth, but we can own our trademark seal of truth. We create an artificial scarcity. Entrusted with the transmission of liberal values of scholarship and reflection, our institutions of higher learning instead beguile the younger generation into scraping and begging and fighting one another for what is theirs by right. It is this corruption that bursts periodically in bitter attacks on the admissions decisions made yet again by Oxford and Cambridge and the U.K.’s Russell Group of elite research-intensive universities. No tinkering with the formulas or quotas for admission will clear away that stench.

So much for the denunciation. But now, what is to be done? While the Oxbridge architecture is not to everyone’s taste, few would recommend that we plow up the quads forthwith and salt the earth. But I do think we need to set the current form of these institutions on a path toward extinction. Rather than piling one benefit on top of another, spread them around. Those academics and students who feel a particular frisson at cosplaying medieval scholars can unfurl their robes on the pseudo-Gothic quadrangles of the ancient universities. Excellent researchers will, of course, be inclined to form clusters with others of their ilk, and these will naturally tend to attract the most talented and intellectually ambitious students. But without institutional (and financial) incentives, these clusters will be modest and ephemeral, and they will be more inclined to cut across institutional boundaries. The students motivated to learn at an accelerated pace will seek out courses appropriate to their interests and skills. The advantage procured from more advanced learning will be only the learning, without the additional impetus of a millennium’s accumulated brand loyalty, allowing everyone more dispassionately to weigh those benefits against geography, cultural offerings, and diverse other factors.

The monstrous gilded ball of prestige and tradition and indisputable greatness that has accumulated in the elite universities is too bulky to be borne, and seems likely to be explosive at its core. The goal must be to disassemble and defuse it, to disaggregate the elements of prestige so that there is no one grand prize for the school-leavers—and their parents—to squabble over, and to suffer over. William Gladstone, once the member of parliament for Oxford University, claimed that Oxford “inculcated a reverence for what is ancient and free and great.” Those parliamentary constituencies representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities were long ago eliminated, as incompatible with this reverence for freedom. Now, to preserve this freedom, Oxbridge itself—and the concept of elite universities of which it is the keystone—must be destroyed.

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