From Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: Think tank report on University Reform
Your enthusiasm for this report is touching but misplaced. We have known for a long time that if university courses were reduced from three years with long vacations to two years with just three weeks holiday a year, huge sums could be saved without any impairment of instruction.
And we have also known that if all but the top ten percent of students were to live at home and go to their local college, further huge sums could be saved. And of course I share your agreement with the report’s conclusion that we are turning out far too many graduates with worthless pseudo – academic qualifications and far too few with usable craft skills. We produce ten students who can write essays on the history of catering for every one who can cook a decent meal.
All of this, however, has one disastrous and quite unacceptable implication. If the practice recommended in the report were to be adopted it would be impossible to stop our two genuine universities being forced down the same route. It would indeed be excellent if the broad mass of students were to leave higher education with usable, employable skills, but the country still needs a few people at the top level of all its major national institutions who have had the broad and deep education in the humanities that you and I received at Oxford and which, I am credibly assured, is also available at Cambridge. There is of course a need for science, engineering and maths graduates for specialist functions, but only an elite collegiate university with a three-year course can give the best of our young people the time and the leisure to absorb the depth of culture and develop the breadth of intellect that will fit them for the leadership of a great nation. If you look at the top of the great institutions – not just Whitehall but also the Cabinet, the media, the church, the law, the financial system – you will see that they are dominated by the powerful minds and refined sensibilities formed at Oxford and Cambridge. They have made this country what it is today – such a jewel in Britain’s crown cannot be put at hazard just to save a few billion pounds a year.
We should therefore give these proposals the especially enthusiastic welcome we reserve for reports whose recommendations we shall reluctantly find to be unworkable in practice. We should then re-circulate with appropriate revisions and updates, the document we used when this idea came up in 1998, 1980, 1971 and 1965, demonstrating that reducing university courses by a year would add half a million to the unemployed register. That knocked the proposal into the long grass on all the previous occasions, and can be confidently trusted to do so again.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 25 August 2010