Today’s undergraduates are customers – and the customer is always right

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

If you’re looking for a sign of the academic times, you could do worse than consider the image, published in newspapers recently, of Mr Chan King Wai at a solemn ceremony in China last year. There is Mr Chan, grinning stiffly but with real pride, dressed in a scholar’s cap with a gold tassel, and a red and shiny purple gown. Around his neck, a little incongruously, is a stripy Brideshead-type scarf. He looks like he has presented himself for Oxbridge theme week on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

He is showing a certificate to the camera. Holding the other end of the certificate, and mustering more of a grimace than a grin, is Alan Hudson — recently retired director of programmes in leadership and public policy at Oxford’s China Centre. Mr Hudson is wearing a sober black gown over his suit, but hasn’t changed out of his brown trainers. This indicates to me that he may not be taking the ceremony as seriously as Mr Chan. Indeed, it indicates to me that he wasn’t quite expecting to be standing on an oceanic red carpet in front of a giant backdrop announcing in Chinese and then in English: ‘The Conferral Ceremony for Dr Chan King Wai to receive the Belt & Road Academician from University of OXFORD.’

What’s a Belt & Road Academician, you are perhaps wondering. It’s nothing. Zip. Nix. Nada. Mr Chan (his doctorate seems to be an honorary one from the Paris School of Business) is not an academic. He has never studied at Oxford and it’s not clear he has so much as toured the town on an open-topped bus. He’s simply a mahoosively wealthy Hong Kong Chinese businessman with strong ties to China’s government; and Oxford’s Hong Kong development office wanted to open his purse or his contacts book, or both.

Mr Hudson last week explained: ‘I looked up the meaning of “academician” and it is absolutely meaningless: it means anybody involved with the university, of any description. So I said there you go, we can put that on the certificate.’ I wonder whether he was quite so clear about this with proud-as-punch Mr Chan, but no doubt he found a suitable form of words. What’s the phrase? Bitch gotta make rent.

We’ll have to ask people who think more deeply about this sort of thing, like Rod Liddle, whether this is, in fact, racist. There’s a slight ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s only some idiot in China’ vibe about it — a very faint echo of those colonial settlers who ‘bought’ vast tracts of valuable land from indigenous people in exchange for shiny glass beads and unloaded muskets and suchlike. But there again, no doubt Oxford’s high-ups would indignantly argue that if they could get away with unloading bogus academic qualifications to Anglo-Saxon carpet tycoons in Stevenage they’d do the same. They probably will. Give it a year or two.

Oxford University isn’t, in this way of looking at the world, a scholarly endeavour. It’s a brand in which the idea of scholarly distinction can be — ugh — leveraged to generate revenue streams and establish international synergies. It is a merchandising operation. And this seems to me on the one hand entirely dismaying and on the other entirely comprehensible. What else is Oxford to do to keep the cash coming, given that the brand is the strongest card it has? Other universities which don’t enjoy name recognition in foreign countries containing credulous squillionaires don’t even have that card to play. But the prestige and exclusivity card, of course, gets a bit tattier and greasier with thumbprints every time it is used. You are, to change metaphors, burning through the capital rather than living on the interest.

Vulgar gowns-for-groats schemes are where you end up if, as successive governments have, you see higher education as essentially a business proposition. Costs are budgeted against projected graduate earnings, fees are calibrated according to prestige, and ‘unproductive’ subjects like the humanities are quietly and inexorably defunded. The student is now not a scholar but a customer. And the customer is always right. Twice as many students now get first-class degrees from British universities than a decade ago — and those who don’t get the grade they hoped for have been known to sue their universities. There’s a respectable argument, of course, that it’s not fair to tax working folk so Fotherington-Thomas can read Anglo-Saxon verse and drink port for three years. How we square that circle is a question for another day, but recognising that universities are a complex good that can’t be captured on a balance sheet might be a start.

Still, grade inflation is everywhere. Nowadays the deputy headmaster practically does your coursework for you. Pass a simple loyalty test, prove yourself able to rote-learn three-word slogans and repeat them back regardless of what the interviewer asked you, and they’ll make you a cabinet minister. Don’t know where Calais is? You’re the man for Trade. Can’t tell the difference between terrorism and counterterrorism? You can be home secretary. If you fail at that for long enough, they’ll give you a peerage and you can salute Lord Beefus of Botham as an equal in statesmanship.

Which reminds me: lordy, what must it be like to be Gavin Williamson every day of the week? The humiliation of it! Many, many times a day you would be made vividly aware that everybody who has ever heard of you thinks that you are a blithering nincompoop; and in the secret chambers of your heart you would suspect, correctly, that they are right. Brr. Personally, I’d have sloped off after my first go at being sacked for scheming and ineptitude, rather than coming back for more.

But here (at the time of writing) he still is, all nervous smarm and Gareth-from-The-Office energy, so far out of his depth he barely knows he’s in the water. One moment backing his algorithm and vowing no U-turn, the next suffering voter-induced whiplash, still grinning his unhappy grin as if his political life depended on it. It’s a particularly grim irony that this guy is in charge of a system whose very raison d’être is that a person’s performance can be meaningfully assessed, and that it will have long-lastingand measurable consequences for their future prospects. Someone put the poor sod out of his misery and make him an Academician of University of OXFORD.

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