Peter Jones

Ancient & modern | 19 June 2010

There is something depressing about the ways university vice-chancellors talk up their plight in the face of cuts.

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There is something depressing about the ways university vice-chancellors talk up their plight in the face of cuts. Not only do they not seem to have the faintest idea what a university is actually for, they also do not seem to realise the implications of their demands for vast increases in fees.

In the ancient world, education was a service, not a right, provided by individuals, not the state, for a fee. Its purpose in what one might call the ‘higher education’ sector was, for the most part, to serve the children of the elite by providing them with the skills required for a successful elite career, i.e. in law and/or politics. That meant what we now call ‘communications skills’, i.e. rhetoric — the capacity to make a persuasive case.

Since the future of the family was at stake and fees for the best teachers could be very high, parents and pupils took a keen interest in the value for money that they were getting. Rich families regularly threatened to withdraw their children if they were not making the expected progress. Students made a habit of cheating. Palladas reveals that students gave him copper or lead coins instead of silver, while others stayed for eleven months and then, to avoid paying the full 12-month course fee, promptly changed teachers. Other students pleaded poverty, often because they spent tuition fees on drinking, gambling and sex.

The pressures even on good teachers were severe. Libanius, who seems to have made a decent career out of teaching, laments his inability to discipline pupils: ‘We know from experience that it is not without danger to ourselves that we chastise.’ Further, he has to account to everyone — students, parents, even grandparents — and if he is not able to make ‘gods out of stones’, he will be the one to blame. He feels like ‘Sisyphus in Homer, who battles with a rock’ that he is trying to push uphill, only for it to roll back down, again and again.

What was a private service for the few has now become, thanks to the welfare state, a public ‘right’ for the many. If that public ‘right’ is now withdrawn because the state can no longer afford it — and that is what vast fee rises promise — those who pay for it will treat it very differently. V-Cs should be careful what they pray for.