JOHN HUMPHRYS: End these degrees of greed

JOHN HUMPHRYS: End these degrees of greed. As even the richest universities plead for Covid cash, it’s an outrage many offer only debt and disappointment in return

The first time I was offered an honorary degree I accepted eagerly. For somebody who’d left school at 15, it did indeed feel like a great honour. Not just a humble BA either. A doctorate. I would be able to style myself Dr Humphrys.

Then I got another offer and another. And then I realised it was not so much to recognise my immeasurable contribution to journalism as a reward for being on the telly.

But then a distinguished university came up with something even grander. They offered me a professorship and my very own department. Naturally, I accepted on the spot. 

We are told ‘uni’ matters because that’s where young people make lasting friendships. Why should an apprentice plumber pay taxes so that socially networked kids can become even better connected? [File photo]

They seemed delighted and slightly surprised. I had only one caveat, I told them. I would reserve the right to close the department within a week of taking it over. The offer was withdrawn.

My rather childish protest came to naught. The department was set up without me and exists to this day. It is a department of media studies. One of those pointless courses that belittles the notion of higher education.

I’ve been pondering all this since the lockdown began. One university after another has been sending its students home. 

No more face-to-face lectures for the rest of this academic year. Cambridge has gone even further. No more in the next academic year either. ‘Virtual’ lectures online only.

The protests have been loud, particularly in the graduate metropolitan media class. Summer balls have been cancelled, Brideshead denied. Many say that this is the end of university education as we know it.

Not that I have much sympathy for Cambridge and their gilded brethren. Only a few days ago an email to staff and students was leaked. It revealed that it is seeking financial help from the Government [File photo]

To which I would say: and about time too. Universities have become a rather cruel hoax played on the young: the promise of Socrates with a sex life thrown in.

What they so often deliver is debt and disappointment. Something has gone horribly wrong in the past couple of decades and it’s time to put it right. The first thing to do is ask some very tough questions about most of our so-called universities.

I say ‘so-called’ because most bear about as much resemblance to the old ideal as my primary school in Splott bore to the dreaming spires.

Not that I have much sympathy for Cambridge and their gilded brethren. Only a few days ago an email to staff and students was leaked. It revealed that it is seeking financial help from the Government. 

This, remember, is the richest institution of higher education in the country. It has an endowment fund of £3.4 billion and reserves of £5.2 billion. Just one of its 31 colleges (Trinity) has its own reserves of £1.2 billion.

At a time when many businesses are wondering if they can survive this year, the prospect of Cambridge coming cap in hand to the taxpayer for subsidies is scandalous. 

And make no mistake, a typical British university is now a business. A struggling business right now because Covid means it can’t attract all those international students (mostly Chinese) who are milked for even steeper fees.

Something has gone horribly wrong in the past couple of decades and it’s time to put it right. The first thing to do is ask some very tough questions about most of our so-called universities [File photo]

Forget all that old-fashioned guff about universities existing to serve their students, to give them an education that will transform their lives and benefit society.

Of course some of them still have high ideals. They attract the brightest and best brains in the world and conduct research that is sometimes of vital importance in medicine, science and technology. Some — like Imperial — make the country richer in many different ways. We need more maths and science.

But too many offer little value. If any. The great equaliser was Tony Blair. Twenty-one years ago he set a target for half of all young people in this country to go to university.

Suddenly, all the practical skills which had ensured jobs and thus dignity, were effectively declared useless. Of course the opposite is true. They are vital.

Tony Blair reached his ludicrous target. It took a son eventually to recognise the sins of his father.

Euan Blair now devotes himself to increasing white collar apprenticeships, which lead to jobs. He has described our education system as broken. He’s right. The nation has put all its eggs into one basket: universities. It has destroyed them in the process and it’s the students who are paying the price. And if they have lost out in the great university racket, so has the taxpayer. The students borrow the money and about half never earn enough to pay it back.

We are told ‘uni’ matters because that’s where young people make lasting friendships. Why should an apprentice plumber pay taxes so that socially networked kids can become even better connected?

As for the universities themselves, most have been transformed from ‘seats of learning’ into multi-billion-pound businesses in which the new chief executives (I’m sorry: vice-chancellors) pay themselves salaries of anything up to half a million quid a year.

Let us not forget that universities were founded on noble ideals. Some grew out of monasteries.

Without our great universities the wonders of the Enlightenment that shaped our modern civilisation might never have been realised. Wise men over the centuries teaching their young, eager students how to pursue the truth through rational thinking. A prize beyond measure.

But today that word ‘teaching’ is looking distinctly wobbly.

I’ve lost count of the number of students I hear complaining that they’re lucky if they have more than a few cursory chats with their so-called teachers. Socratic dialogue it ain’t.

Even in the top universities the academics themselves despair that they are under so much pressure from the now all-powerful university administrators they find themselves spending less and less of their time teaching and more and more time churning out grant-generating ‘research’ that they themselves regard as valueless.

Either that or marketing a dream like every other big corporation.

So what’s to be done?

Let’s abolish Blair’s preposterous 50 per cent target and claim back education in its true sense. The Open University is different. It educates rather than exploits.

Let’s recognise that the so-called ‘humanities’ have pretty much had their day. We need cancer cures and solutions to global warming. We don’t need to know whether Jane Austen was a secret lesbian.

And then let’s close down half the universities, spend the money on practical courses in Further Education colleges and provide a properly functioning apprenticeship system.

As for Cambridge University? Instead of begging from a Government that’s facing the biggest debts in history, maybe it could try flogging some of its land or its paintings or, God forbid, a bottle or two of rather good claret.

There might even be a few quid left over to fund a decent training college.

I’ve lost count of the number of students I hear complaining that they’re lucky if they have more than a few cursory chats with their so-called teachers. Socratic dialogue it ain’t [File photo]

Kissinger and the Nobel Prize for teasing 

Henry Kissinger turned 97 this week. He was a Jewish refugee who became the most famous and powerful figure in the United States. 

When Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the war in Vietnam he was reviled by millions for his role in bombing Cambodia

He had a thick German accent, a brain the size of a planet and was the most controversial Secretary of State in American history.

It was he who persuaded Richard Nixon, one of America’s most Right-wing presidents, to open the door to Communist China. 

When Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in ending the war in Vietnam he was reviled by millions for his role in bombing Cambodia. 

The humorous songwriter Tom Lehrer famously said it was the day satire died. Kissinger once walked out of an interview with me because I reminded him of it.

But he also had a self-deprecating sense of humour. A group of us hacks once asked him at the White House what it was like being Henry Kissinger. 

He answered: ‘Because you are Henry Kissinger you get invited to all the best parties and all the best dinners.

‘And because you are Henry Kissinger you are always seated next to the most beautiful and intelligent woman. And because you are Henry Kissinger you can be very boring — and she will think it’s her fault.’

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