If the Prime Minister really wants some of that ‘blue sky thinking’ of which he is so fond, and for which he bizarrely relies on the utterly discredited figure of John Birt, he would do well to take the ‘up train’ to Oxford and pop into the Warden’s lodgings at New College. From the Warden, Alan Ryan, he would be sure to hear plenty of candid words. Not comforting ones, necessarily; for Ryan, a leading theorist on politics and education and an authority on John Stuart Mill, is not known for mincing his words.
‘I by and large hold the view that all governments should be shouted at,’ he says, ‘on the grounds that power is extremely corrupting.’ During the Laura Spence affair he declared, ‘In my opinion Gordon Brown is a fibber and a hypocrite and a bully. He was talking out of his backside, and that’s a bad thing for a government minister to do.’
For a bold solution to the problems of education, however, Ryan is Tony Blair’s man. (Did not Mr Blair tell us that we are ‘best’ when we are at our ‘boldest’?) He advocates an unashamedly elitist university system and the abolition of state schools, but arrives at his position from the kind of liberal and social democratic view that a Labour government ought at least to be willing to consider.
Ryan identifies the failure to distinguish between the types of education offered after the enormous expansion of the universities as the problem. ‘Margaret Hodge said wasn’t it very snobbish to say that not all universities provide exactly the same education. But it’s not merely not snobbish, it’s the brutal fact about the world. An awful lot of what passes for higher education nowadays consists of nine hours of academic work per week, and then 14-week-long vacations in which the students stack shelves at Sainsbury’s.