Paul Barker

Girton Spread Thin

Universities: Knowing Our Minds

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No one denies that the universities are having a rough time. No one can deny, either, that having to listen to oily homilies from Kenneth Baker and Robert Jackson must be more than body and soul and brain can bear. (John MacGregor, the first member of the staff of New Society to make it to Cabinet, may be Jess of a pain). All the same, the experience has provoked an oddly unphilosophical response from Baroness Warnock, Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

Like her, I am convinced that good universities are essential. Like her, too – at least, I think this is what she thinks – I am sure that we must put a heftier percentage of school leavers through some form of higher education. But just how many universities can be ‘good’? And what is a ‘university’, anyway?

Lady Warnock squiddishly clouds the waters at the start of her pamphlet. She acknowledges that the current English distinction between ‘polytechnics’ and ‘universities’ is peculiar, and won’t last. They will all, soon, be called universities. But she then goes on only to talk about those institutions that today get their money from the new Universities Funding Council (chief executive: Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, Eton and Trinity, Fellow of the Royal Society, former professor of mathematics at Cambridge).

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