Michael Fry: Our universities need their freedom to thrive

St Andrews University. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
St Andrews University. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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POLITICAL pressure on academic institutions is not the only way to help poorer students, writes Michael Fry

St ANDREWS University – basking in the international limelight as the alma mater of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and looking 
forward to its sexcentennialyear in 2013 – suddenly appears, in Scottish terms, a delinquent.

Last year it admitted only 14 students from deprived backgrounds out of a total Scottish intake of 482. The university has somewhat limply undertaken to raise the former figure to 20, but this is unlikely to impress anybody, even itself. The government of the people’s Scotland certainly disapproves, and says so.

St Andrews is an elitist institution, then, which in these egalitarian times is not an easy thing to be. And further offences can be laid to its charge. It admits a large number of English students, especially from private schools. It also admits a large number of foreign students, especially Americans.

The advantage for the university is that the English and the Americans pay full fees. It so happens that during the present squeeze on public expenditure in Scotland, the universities are among the sectors being squeezed hardest of all. That is a deliberate policy of the Scottish Government, and perhaps it is the way the government thinks elitist institutions ought to be treated. In any case, it wants them to seek funds from other sources, from winning research grants and passing the hat round among their graduates.

But the universities can scarcely blind themselves to sources of income from current students, which means from non-European and from English students. The first source has been opened by European legislation. The second source has been opened by Scottish legislation. Again, the government of Scotland has itself to blame if students from its own country are squeezed out.

Of course, those English or American students need also to meet the standards that Scots kids fail to meet. But it seems to me difficult to argue that many of these are being deprived of places they might otherwise win. It is a long time since I 
went to university, but in those days only about 10 per cent of my peers did so. Today the level for the relevant age group is around 50 per cent. There may still be potential students that this enormous expansion misses. But it seems unlikely the blame lies with the universities themselves.

For example, St Andrews has an excellent department of modern languages. Yet just as we read in the news about the university’s elitism, we also 
read, thanks to the British Council, about a catastrophic decline in the teaching of languages at Scottish schools, largely brought on by the mess of policy under a government which actually has the official aim of expanding such teaching. The point is this, however: should St Andrews admit Scottish students who are not as proficient in languages as those from England or America?

I have my own answer to this question, and perhaps the government of Scotland has another. But I would hope we might agree St Andrews should at all costs maintain its high place in the ranks of the world’s best universities. This, rather than the approval of the government of Scotland, is the key to its future.

In fact, the world’s very best universities boast a fine record of admitting students from the most deprived backgrounds. The world’s very best universities are those that belong to the Ivy League in the US. Most have needs-blind admission, that is to say, when considering an application from a student they in the first place take note of his or her intellectual abilities and 
capacity to benefit from the courses on offer. Only then do they consider whether the student can pay. If not, the university will find the necessary money.

Two things need to be noted about this exemplary system. One is that the Ivy League consists of private universities, not controlled or financed by state or federal government. Routinely they raise huge sums of money by their own efforts, on a scale British universities have hardly begun to contemplate. The other thing is that the Ivy League hit on the concept of needs-blind admission of its own volition, without political arm-twisting. American academics tend to be liberal people: they need no lectures from partisan politicians. I would say the ultimate future for St Andrews lies in privatising itself on American lines, but that is a column for another day.

There are contrary lessons from the political control of admissions to universities not far from us in place or time. I spent the last academic year at Leipzig: an ancient university, founded in 1409, still struggling to recover from 40 years of Communism. 
In the universities of the German Democratic Republic there was clear policy on admissions. First preference went to the offspring of card-carrying Communists. Second preference went to other working-class kids, on the argument that the universities had traditionally favoured the bourgeoisie, and now it was the proletariat’s turn. Third preference was for those 
willing to study subjects the state judged useful, such as medicine or metallurgy. Not much was left after these categories had been filled. I got to know the son of a Lutheran minister wanting to study music who never could till Communism fell. By then, East German universities were shadows of their former selves.

Like much else in Scottish society, our universities stand at a crux. In this case, too, I hope we will choose freedom rather than control. But this is not a high priority with our micro-managing Scottish Government.