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The university’s freedom lesson

KA Dilday
22 March 2007

The University and College Admissions Services (Ucas) in Britain announced in March 2007 that the country's universities will now be supplied with information on whether a candidate grew up in foster care , and even on the educational attainment of his or her parents. Some critics immediately responded that the use of the new information would result in universities being comprised entirely of privileged people and of those from modest backgrounds: the middle class would be cut out. But what Ucas undoubtedly hopes is that the new information will encourage universities to admit a greater range of people, thus increasing social mobility and broadening the experience of their students.

At the same time that the conservative nature of admissions is under review, the liberal approach to the diversity of thought allowed on campuses is being squeezed. A leading voice is that of Antony Glees, director of Brunel University's centre for intelligence and security studies (BCISS), who in September 2005 published a report alleging extensive infiltration by Muslim extremists of Britain's universities and colleges. He suggested the universities expel radical Muslim groups from campus and try to weed out potential extremists in admissions interviews.

What is the function of a country's universities? Are they, as Rousseau believed, engaged in a crucial alchemy - recreating the nation by admitting and guiding the cognitive development of the people who will be most instrumental in directing the country? Or is the university's role, as Herder wrote, to ensure that the student's quantitative knowledge is part of the Zeitgeist and language of the nation?

Behind Ucas's decision is the idea that students whose parents went to university come from backgrounds where books and learning are part of family life. Of course this isn't always true, and the information may become simply another imperfect (though seemingly objective) factor to be added to the selection process. Students from less academic backgrounds are often intelligent and / or hard workers but may possess only the basic knowledge one acquires at school - the flourishes that are the hallmark of a liberal arts education are missing, even as some are inquisitive autodidacts who seek their own knowledge.

Education, though, is a much more complicated process when one does not have a guide to tell one to read Plato, Locke, Mill, or Hume to understand the origins of the social contract (perhaps they tell one that in British schools, they don't in the United States). When I was young, I roamed among the books at the library. My extra-school education came from the 1970s paperbacks that filled my parent's shelves, what I happened upon at the public or school library and the books that the books I happened upon mentioned. A name-dropping author could keep me occupied for months, yet my selection was limited to what I could find in my immediate surroundings; regardless of my curiosity my education was controlled. Now the prevalence of the internet means that young people can find a vast range of information, thanks to sites like Project Gutenberg, even the classics, but they can also find sinister and or half-baked theories presented without the balance of a counter opinion.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (June 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

"Iraqis adrift"
(19 February 2007)

"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel"
(6 March 2007)

Anthony Glees's research finds that, at their peak before the London bombs of July 2005, Islamist extremists had a presence at as many as forty-eight British universities and faculties, is frightening but somewhat mitigated when one remembers that ideological passion and moral righteousness are the hallmark of universities and university students. From environmentalism to anti-war protests to gay and lesbian rights to anti-globalisation movements, one can find a range of extreme opinions. True, not all forms of extremism have been associated with recent violence (although many more have than the current focus on Islamic extremists allows) and Glees with good reason thinks national safety is more important than providing university students with a full range of expression. Yet a link between university atmosphere and terrorists is tenuous. Yes, terrorists have attended British universities but more often, they have not. And when the proselytising of the campus extremists - which does not mean terrorists - are countered with other perspectives and thoughts, students clearly realise that there are other choices to be made. In the era of the internet, there is very little possibility of preventing unpalatable ideas from reaching people.

A space for reason

A range of people and opinions enables students to learn to understand others, and to make choices. Across the channel, in France, efforts similar to those by the Ucas are underway to diversify the system by which people are accepted to the grandes écoles, the institutions that provide entry to upper echelons of France's power structure. France has a rigid yet labyrinthine educational system whereby several of the institutions most likely to guarantee social and professional clout are extremely competitive non-degree granting ones, the most famous of which is the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (Ena). One makes one's way to Ena by a complicated system that starts after middle school and requires several years of (non-degree-granting) preparation continuing into one's early 20s. Even if they did understand the process, it's not terribly appealing to students whose families need them to earn money. As a result most of the students who attend these schools are those who parents have graduated from them or whose parents are teachers. Others simply don't know how, or are frightened off.

Sciences Politiques, one of the elite schools (that one attends before one attends Ena has recently started a programme to recruit students from poor neighbourhoods. Patrick Weil, an immigration specialist and a member of the Haut conseil à l'intégration, has said that all of the major presidential candidates have backed a plan to channel the top two graduates from each school in the country to the grandes écoles. Unless the schools integrate, they realise, France will never integrate and the country will remain segregated. France has such rigid structures that one can only go so far in business, politics or almost any field without the correct academic pedigree. It is common to be told at age 14 or so that one's calling is plumbing or truck-driving or perhaps charcuterie - and to prepare thereafter for that profession. For the students of immigrant origin in the banlieues, neighbourhood imams often provide the secondary education, after the French system judges them sufficiently educated for the career that guidance counsellors have picked out for them.

Wouldn't it benefit a nation to have those who might be susceptible to extremism on campus - where extremist views can be countered with other more rational ones? Try as governments of countries such as France, Britain or the Netherlands might, they cannot control the flow of ideas by expelling dangerous imams. This week, after discovering that a integrated Dutch woman of Moroccan heritage appeared to be involved in terrorist activities, the Dutch government finally admitted that they no longer idea what the profile of a terrorist is, nor how to stop a person becoming a terrorist. Extreme opinion will always be available to those who crave it and no one knows who will be susceptible.

The Guardian recently sent four writers back to their respective university to see how it had changed. Stuart Jeffries's experience at Oxford struck me most. He had arrived in the early 1980s from a state school, lacking confidence and the proper accent. He recalled:

"At the time there was a lot of talk about the neutron bomb, which killed people and left buildings intact. I thought the university, and the 700-year-old Exeter College in particular, needed a payload of those. Every time I got off the Midland Red coach and walked to college, where I was studying philosophy, politics and economics, I felt as if I were entering a rabbit hole to a world so socially stratified that I couldn't quite believe it existed. I hated it, hated it, hated it - and my hatred itself was intolerable because I knew I was privileged: no one from my family had been to university, still less one of the greatest in the world. I would shut up and get on with it. I guess I did."

Jeffries became a journalist instead of a terrorist even though there was plenty of terrorist activity in Europe at the time. With its open but critical atmosphere, the university offers a place for a widening range of students to grow up and learn to get on with it, and to reason and explore choice in all of its seductive versions. Better at uni than elsewhere, I say.

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