Toby Young Toby Young

Why we need more universities

Monopolists typically dress up their hostility to competition as being ­principled

In 1961, shortly after getting a job as a lecturer at Cambridge, my father had an idea. The faculty buildings, he discovered, were largely unused for six months of the year. The colleges, too, were empty. Why not create two Cambridges, one for term time and one for the holidays? Unlike the Cambridge of dreaming spires and glittering prizes, the second would be for ordinary people who’d missed out on the chance of a university education — labourers, tradesmen, clerks, housewives. It wouldn’t be a place of privilege and over-indulgence, but of hard-working people eager to soak up knowledge. And instead of propping up the English class system, it would turn it on its head.

When he presented this proposal to the university authorities he was met with near universal derision. One don drew attention to his use of the word ‘campus’ to describe the university’s footprint — a ghastly Americanism that no self-respecting Cambridge man would ever use. It was as if some crazy, socialist idealist had suggested to the owners of a stately home that they let their servants sleep in their beds when they weren’t there.

But my father was a tenacious man. He quickly established that the redbrick universities were also empty for half the year and tried the idea out on them. He was expecting a warmer reception — after all, they knew what it was to be looked down on by the elite. But they turned out to be equally dismissive. Having acquired a soupçon of respectability, they weren’t about to jeopardise it by admitting any Tom, Dick or Harry. He reluctantly concluded that the only way to get his new venture off the ground was if it didn’t have a ‘campus’. Lectures would be broadcast on television and academics and students would communicate via mail.

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