David Willetts’ new book about universities toggles between the function and the funding of universities. On what universities are for, he is interesting: on how to fund them, he is anxious to justify the regime of student fees that he inherited and extended as minister for universities in the Coalition government. Almost in passing, he has some alarming things to say about the way universities distort the function of secondary education.
It all comes down to the eccentricities of the English university system, in particular, the age-old duopolistic dominance of Oxbridge. We got in early with two, and then stalled – for centuries. By 1400 there were 29 universities in Europe, but no new universities were created in England between 1209 and 1829. This was no accident – Oxford and Cambridge were proactive in preventing proliferation.
Even when new universities were belatedly founded in England, their style often aped the Oxbridge template. Oxbridge defined the model of the elite, research-intensive English university, dominated by a national competition for places. The shape the university sector took has had substantial trickle-down effects on schools. The university sector, in Willetts’ view, now exercises a stranglehold on the school curriculum. He makes a compelling case.
University admissions requirements dictate an unusual degree of specialisation in the sixth form, and this is due to the way in which academic departments control admissions. In much of Europe, admission to a local university is almost by right; while admissions decisions in the US are made at university-level, using broader assessments. In English universities, by contrast, admissions decisions are devolved to individual departments.
The physics department wants applicants who already know a lot of physics. Willetts thinks this is damaging; he thinks early specialisation inflicts cultural and intellectual damage. Instead of asking a physics don how much physics a fresher needs to know, we should ask how much physics a student starting a history degree should know.
Willetts goes still further. In his view, premature specialisation is the major weakness of our system. He advocates a requirement for five A-level subjects, with everyone doing maths and at least one science and one art. He wants four-year degree courses, with a broader curriculum to begin with, on the American model. He says this should be the next big educational reform.
But wait, wasn’t he a member of the government that took us in completely the opposite direction – towards linearity and a reduction to three subjects at A level? If he felt so strongly, why did he give in to Gove’s agenda?
Willetts is laissez-faire about universities, but prescriptive with regard to schools. He makes much of the need for market forces in higher education, and champions "consumer" (ie, student) choice. But it clearly pains him that, whenever universities have expanded, the newly included group seems to have made the wrong choices. Given progressively greater access to higher education over the last hundred years, women and the working classes have stubbornly preferred humanities to Stem subjects. His solution? Enforce a broader curriculum in the sixth form.
Yet it is far from clear that things would be different if recalcitrant sixth formers were forced to carry on with one science subject. Scientists are made or unmade well before the age of 16.
Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1