Is there a conservative in the House? In the clash over the UK's universities no party defends their historic calling

The higher education debate has failed to take account of the conservative perspective. The loud dispute over the reforms and their ability to support universities in their 'proper function' has drowned out the conservative argument that such criteria - of success, power and utility - should not be imposed on the education system.
Peter Johnson
3 January 2011

The higher education debate has failed to take account of the conservative perspective. The loud dispute over the reforms and their ability to support universities in their 'proper function' has drowned out the conservative argument that such criteria - of success, power and utility - should not be imposed on the education system. Regardless of results, the very attempt to reform the pursuit of learning risks destroying the culture, habits and institutions that educate. 

December’s fascinating OurKingdom conversation between Alan Finlayson and Tony Curzon Price on the subject of the Government’s higher education reforms crystallised into this: 

"... there will be no distinctly public university whose ends, organisation and methods we could be arguing about."

A factor behind this fear is the quiet opening of the door to the provision of higher education ‘services’ by for-profit organisations. An analogous policy is being formed for primary and secondary education. It’s currently unthinkable that Whitehall would abandon the power to impose revenue and cost constraints. But the energy, transport, and telecommunications industries warn us that controlling the selling prices or profits in a competitive utility market does not of itself guarantee good services or value for money.

The trouble is that the good parts of both the higher and schools education policies are likely to be damaged by over-strong producer interests and demoralised or weak governance. And this, as Tony and Alan discussed, is just at odds with the idea of a public university or public (in the sense of publicly owned and governed) school. Reform is being driven forward on the premise that the only demands that matter are those of consumers and producers and the only proper supplier of resources to satisfy those demands is the leviathan at the centre. This kind of reform dismisses, on principle, all other layers of activity as unproductive of that output known as an education.

But there is another view of education, both conservative and liberal, that neither party in the coalition (nor for that matter the main party in opposition) would recognise. It’s a view that suggests that whether or not the reforms are declared a success in their own terms, simply attempting them risks destroying all that actually matters: the habits, cultures, and institutions that educate.

The conservative, though by no means Conservative, British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott considered an education "'liberal' because it is liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants" (A Place of Learning, 1975). A liberal education is a shared adventure in human self-understanding. Whether in the sciences or humanities, it entails the constant exploration and development of our culture.

Much earlier, in his wonderful and still pertinent 1950 essay On the Idea of a University Oakeshott wrote this:

... current talk about the ‘mission’ and the ‘function’ of a university goes rather over my head; I think I can understand what is intended, but it seems to me an unfortunate way of talking. It assumes that there is something called ‘a university’, a contrivance of some sort, something you could make another of tomorrow if you had enough money, of which it is sensible to ask, What is it for? And one of the criticisms of contemporary universities is that they are not as clear as they ought to be about their ‘function’. I am not at all surprised. There is plenty that might properly be criticized in our universities, but to quarrel with them because they are not clear about their ‘function’ is make a mistake about their character. A university is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a manner of human activity.

He warns of the risks of allowing universities to be judged or governed according to notions of ‘higher education’, ‘advanced training’ and so on – ideas that belong to a world of power, utility, exploitation, egoism, activity, and achievement. This world is impatient with whatever doesn’t contribute to its own purposes, and because it is rich and powerful, is apt to mould everything in its own image.

Later he writes:

The pursuit of learning, like every other great activity, is unavoidably conservative. A university is not like a dinghy which can be jiggled about to catch every transient breath of wind. The critics it should listen to are those who are interested in the pursuit of learning, not those who find a university imperfect because it is not something other than it is.

Meaningful reform requires a thoughtful, serious, principled consideration of the things that people in fact do, and of the institutions that arise with that doing; what they are, what history and practices they embody, what relationships and ethical values they exhibit. Institutions are the habit and accumulated knowledge of immemorial human conversations, often not directed to ends, and healthy institutions are less self-regulating in a legal or commercial sense than self-sustaining or self-healing. In this view, reform undertaken as a constructive activity designed to achieve certain pre-determined ends is just a categorical mistake: it misunderstands the nature of the things being reformed and will very likely damage, if not destroy, precisely what we wish to protect.

But where are our conservatives now? For many years (I’d say since late Thatcher, but the exact date is unimportant), there has been no conservative party in the UK. Being a Conservative has usually meant appealing to die-hard tendencies on immigration, the EU, the military, tax, punishment, business, and so on, but not in a conservative way. Right wing perhaps, but not conservative. Conservatives in other parties likewise seem to have died out.

This is only partly about an establishment that would rather not rock the boat. As well as the change itself, the way change happens is important. Should it, where possible, emerge freely, organically and unpredictably through the subtle interactions of complex people in complex institutional relationships, or does change always require a blueprint, a rationally determined idea of the end-point, a principle, an objective, milestones? As Michael Kenny wrote, Oakeshott tells us that civilized and civilizing social exchange simply can’t be reproduced by design. 

In fact, all our political parties are now fully paid up members of a new establishment that, as in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, wants to change everything so that everything should stay the same. This upheaving to no effect is as far from being conservative as it is possible to be. Institutions are casually ripped apart and the pieces glued back together, following some plan in the name of progress or modernisation, whilst their – and our – accumulated practice and culture blow away on the wind like chaff.

The conservative instinct is a delicate thing inseparable from the customs and practice of the institutions it cares about. It can no more be rustled up by rational design than a good judiciary or a good cricket team. The disappearance of a serious conservative movement in the UK and its replacement in all political parties by the kind of rationalism that aims to construct a better world from policy papers and dismembered symbols is a cultural disaster for our country. Will the conservatives please stand up?


Note: the essays of Michael Oakeshott referred to can be found in The Voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller (Yale University Press, 1989).


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