Peter Jones

The big business of teaching

Libanius won students by drinking, gambling – and creating a network of recruiters

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As expected, the prospect of charging £9,000 (and rising) per annum, per student has universities abandoning any pretence to maintaining standards in favour of piling ’em high. Ancient ‘universities’ knew all about it.

Ancient education was private. A city might pay a ‘lecturer’ a small retainer, but he made his money through the fees he charged. But since all lecturers taught the same thing — rhetoric, with a view to a career in politics and law — each was in a constant, often literal, battle to attract students and stop them defecting. We hear of lecturers urging their students to waylay ‘freshers’ as they arrived in port and drag them to their classes.

Libanius (c. ad 314-392), professor of rhetoric at Antioch, rejected this approach. So having got the ‘chair’, he set about winning students by the brilliance of his teaching. Here politics came into it. He encouraged higher authorities in Antioch, ‘capital’ of Syria, to favour him and show it by hiring his students. The envy of other teachers had to be fought: Libanius went drinking and gambling to forge political and educational alliances. He cemented friendships among influential parents through contact and letters, especially during vacations (‘Do I not know my students, their fathers, situations, finances?’ he wrote).

While the majority of his students came from Antioch, he could not afford to ignore winning students from elsewhere: in a letter, he listed pupils from all over Asia Minor. He encouraged his ‘alumni’ to spread the word of his abilities, creating networks of recruiters (he had to calm down an over-effusive student about ‘this god before whom you bow’). He wrote to thank an alumnus: ‘A friend’s children have come to a friend, through a friend.’ But the system worked both ways. If parents wanted Libanius to take their child, they had better cultivate him as he them.

Jeremy Corbyn plans to make university education free for everyone. That will end the gravy train. No surprise, then, that usually gabby dons are keeping shtum about their hero Corbyn’s proposal, which anyone of principle would surely applaud. But if Labour does win power, full-fee-paying foreign students will become even more important, and every university will require its Libaniuses to keep the show on the road.