David Willetts

Stemming the Brain Drain

Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century

By

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David Goodhart has long been interested in a particularly acute set of modern dilemmas: commitment or exit; staying or moving; community or market. He has already added ‘somewhere or anywhere’ to that list.

These tensions provide a useful way of thinking about the impact of long-term structural changes in the economy. Economic activity was deeply rooted and widely distributed across the country when it was centred on coal mines, ports and power stations. But in a modern service economy, we increasingly agglomerate in big cities, where labour is more specialised and productive. As a result, previously prosperous places have been left behind and individuals living there face the acute dilemma of whether to stay or to move. Policymakers face a similar dilemma: do they try to bring jobs to where the people are or do they urge people to go to where the jobs are? The people who have remained voted in large numbers for Brexit, and some now have a Conservative MP for the first time in living memory, in such unlikely places as Scunthorpe, Bolsover, Wakefield and Grimsby. Boris Johnson’s government is rightly focused on them. Cosmopolitan disdain is out.

Goodhart sees all this as part of a process in which the cognitively and intellectually smart people leave and the others stay. To add insult to injury, the movers see the financial rewards they receive as evidence of personal superiority – cognitive meritocracy having proved to be as painful as the sociologist Michael Young famously predicted it would be. Goodhart’s remainers may not be smart graduates, but they have other aptitudes, practical and caring, which ought to be seen as just as valuable.

Goodhart is right that cognitive skill, largely a matter of genetic luck anyway, is not a basis for any claim to moral superiority. This was indeed what Friedrich Hayek, responding to Young, declared in The Constitution of Liberty. The distribution of rewards in a market economy should not be seen as based on moral criteria. It is repellent if winners in this particular genetic lottery regard their high returns as evidence of personal virtue. But Goodhart goes to the other extreme and seems to regard ‘hand’ and ‘heart’ as morally superior, associating them with commitment, belonging and authenticity; ‘head’, by contrast, leads to rootless cosmopolitanism. He rightly praises ‘doing your duty’ and ‘making a contribution’, but these do not depend on the type of aptitudes you have: a cryptographer at a desk does not make less of a contribution than a soldier on the front line. And he himself appears to be ambivalent about the ethics of leaving and staying. At one point, he joins the critics of the former MP Justine Greening for saying she wanted to get out of Rotherham, where she was born. Later, however, he appears sympathetic to a journalist friend in London who asks if he was supposed to have stayed in Bury. This should serve as a warning of how difficult it is to make moral judgements in such cases.

Goodhart writes about all this with shrewdness and skill. I share his interest in the problem: in my work on civic conservatism, I tried to find a way of combining the dynamism of a market economy with a recognition of the value of family, community and nation. But Goodhart presents it as a conflict between different people, when it is at least as much a personal tension within each one of us – with the balance liable to shift at different stages in our lives.

What is peculiar is that the chief culprit in this debate has become the universities. Universities have been receiving quite a kicking over the last few years, and Goodhart joins in. He calls the modern university ‘the quintessentially Anywhere institution’.

It’s certainly true that higher education provides opportunities for young people to advance their careers away from home. Goodhart says, ‘English working-class towns such as Barnsley, Doncaster and Wakefield each year suffer a brain drain losing thousands of their academically brightest eighteen-year-olds to university towns and metropolitan centres such as Leeds and Sheffield. Many of them never return to live permanently.’ But the university participation rates for eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds in those three towns is 32 per cent, way below the national average of 42 per cent. By contrast, in Tatton it is 60 per cent and in Wimbledon 80 per cent. So if those northern towns have a problem, it is much more likely to result from there being too little access to a university education there rather than too much. Or is he saying that people in Barnsley are not as smart as people in Tatton? ‘Levelling up’ surely means giving them the same opportunity to go to university, including providing them with a university or some other higher education institute in the towns where they live.

Universities are exceptional among modern institutions in having geographical names. They are somewhere. They stay in the same place for centuries. They are crucial to the local economy and civic life and are the best anchor for a town facing the gales of globalisation. The university is the institution where the tensions Goodhart identifies are most often played out. He worries about students moving out and moving up, but he forgets that the university, with its staff and its services, remains rooted in a town, bringing people in and keeping some of them there. The evidence is clear: universities help towns and cities retain home-grown graduates; cities without a university are least likely to attract back students born there after they have graduated.

His peculiar focus on the culpability of universities is in striking contrast to the American literature on places and groups that have lost out. Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is a compelling account of what happened to a town in Middle America after the closure of the General Motors factory at the heart of its economy and community life. She does indeed demonstrate a strand of scepticism about education, but it is mainly about the vocational training programmes that Goodhart is keen on. He cites J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of growing up in the rustbelt city of Middleton, Ohio, in support of his argument. But, far from being to blame for the poverty in which he grows up, the author’s alma mater, Ohio State University, is what saves him.

There is of course a long tradition of intellectuals getting a bit soppy about vocational skills, often, for some reason, involving motorbikes – from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1974 to Matthew Crawford today. Social attitude surveys show that graduates tend to think that too many people go to university, whereas the groups underrepresented at universities think more should have the opportunity – a classic case of insiders versus outsiders. It is true that in the post-crash economy, graduate earnings have lagged. But sadly non-graduates have done worse, particularly since they also face a much higher risk of unemployment, something that is not reflected in narrow comparisons of earnings.

There is a peculiarly English strand to Goodhart’s edu-scepticism. It is revealed in his endorsement of ‘elite’ universities and his hostility to the rest. In England, members of our elite – to which Goodhart honestly admits he belongs – have a view of university shaped by the 800-year dominance of Oxbridge. For them, a local university that takes students from poorer backgrounds with lower grades and does not do much in the way of highly cited research barely counts as a university at all. In fact, sometimes one thinks they would be happier with what such institutions do if only they were not called universities. In the United States, they do not have this problem: Americans understand that universities come in many shapes and sizes. Germany does not have such a hierarchy of universities either, and the Technische Hochschule that we all admire doubles up as a university of applied science.

The contempt for those ex-polytechnics, brilliantly captured in Howard Jacobson’s Coming from Behind, is an unusual and unappealing feature of English culture, and it is on display in this book. It means, frustratingly, that Goodhart’s mind is closed to the very institutions that have the best chance of helping the people and places he rightly cares about. Ironically, the research-intensive, socially and academically selective universities of which he approves are the most global. The former polytechnics are more local. They focus on technical and vocational skills, from nursing to automotive engineering. They are more likely to take commuter students. They are linked to local employers. They do research, but it is more likely to be applied and directly relevant to the local area, with economists studying the local economy, for example, rather than making the theoretical advances that get high numbers of citations.

He touches briefly on this, but then says, ‘they choose to play in a league where they are bound to be the losers, in part because they attract so little research funding’. That is not a choice they have made. It is the result of a distinctive English elite view that there is only a single way of judging universities. There is no reason for that. We can have different universities with different missions. America does. Germany does. If only Goodhart understood that, he would find that they could be powerful allies in tackling the problems that concern him.

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