There is no ‘right to be a scholar’

In 2010, both mask-wearing anarchists and polite MPs argued that higher education is a right not a privilege. They were both wrong.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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One idea that exploded on to the UK political scene towards the end of 2010 is that ‘Education is a right not a privilege’. Policemen were literally beaten around the head with those words, by students protesting against the Lib-Cons’ hike in tuition fees, while at the same time similar phrases were being spouted by the Lib-Con metrosexuals and white-haired old duffers in the Commons and the Lords. The only disagreement between the rowdy students and their supposed betters was over the question of whether tuition fees will improve or hamper young people’s ability to exercise their right to education.

This meant that the whole debate was pretty much a non-starter. Because when you mash together the language of rights with the pursuit of higher education, you end up sullying both. There is no ‘right to be a scholar’. There is no ‘right to be a pursuer of excellence’. By their very definition, these pursuits require both self-selection (a clear determination on the part of the individual to apply himself in a particular way) and external selection (someone deciding whether you’re up to the task of considering and understanding high ideals and ideas). There can be no automatic access to a university education. I’d go so far as to argue that the placard-wielding students got it completely the wrong way around: higher education is not a right, it’s a privilege.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as a right to education. Between the ages of four and 18, everyone, regardless of background, parental income, religious belief or intellectual capability, should have free, unfettered access to excellent schooling. For the majority, that schooling should expect and nurture the highest academic standards. For a minority, for example those with serious learning difficulties, it should be catered to their needs and abilities. But there is not a child in Britain who shouldn’t receive a free and decent education.

University, however, is different. It is not schooling, and it is not for everyone. It is driven by the very important ideal of vocation – ‘the action of calling a person to exercise some special function’ – and it is a profound contradiction in terms, a serious warping of both terminology and values, to promote the idea that all of us should have automatic access to a vocational calling. Having been properly, freely schooled, every pupil should have the opportunity to sit exams for university – but that doesn’t mean they have the right to go to university. That’s a bit like demanding the right to be the next Einstein. What the language of ‘rights’ and ‘access’ in the higher education debate overlooks is that there is a very important dynamic of discrimination within the academy, without which it ceases to be an academy at all: that is, intellectual discrimination, choosing between those who are able and those who are not.

It’s important to point out that this is nothing to do with discrimination on the basis of class or race. The poorest boy in Britain should be able to go to a serious university if he has a brilliant mind and a willingness to apply it both independently and under the guidance of professors. And it’s important to point out that these poorer students will require some form of financial assistance. Certainly they should not have to pay fees, and possibly they should be awarded a grant, in order to ensure their survival during three or four years of study, debate and reflection.

But they are not exercising a right. Rather, having demonstrated their intellectual superiority, they are being granted a privilege – the privilege to spend time in an institution in which ‘the intellect may safely range and speculate’, as Cardinal John Henry Newman put it. According to the OED a privilege is ‘an advantage enjoyed by a person beyond the common advantage of others’. And that is precisely what higher education ought to be – an advantage some people enjoy over others, not because they are richer or have the right skin colour, but because they have demonstrated a notable, uncommon capability and willingness to pursue knowledge and higher educational ideals.

Introducing the idea of automatic access into the debate about higher education, so that it is considered borderline barbaric if any person is excluded from university life, denigrates the purpose of the academy. It sacrifices the key attribute of intellectual discrimination at the altar of the PC notion of ‘access for all’. What people end up demanding access to is more schooling – the right to be sustained by the state through the education system up to the age of 21. Successive British governments, particularly New Labour and the Lib-Cons, have no one to blame but themselves for this state of affairs: having cynically and philistinely repackaged higher education as a mish-mash of learning and youth training, which virtually every single young person should experience, they can’t now be surprised when students fight back by saying: ‘Where’s our RIGHT to go to university?’ The consequence of this all-must-have-degrees approach is that university education has been cheapened into more of a mass consumer commodity, with many students effectively paying for degrees that aren’t worth it. So, the right to what, exactly?

Even after weeks of protesting and heated debates on higher education, there are still some great unspeakables: the question of whether so many young adults should be in higher education in the first place; the fact that some youngsters should be told that higher education isn’t right for them, or rather they aren’t right for it; the transformation of the academy from a privileged zone for the best and keenest minds into a kind of holding camp between childhood and adult work. In demanding that the state pull the purse strings in order to ensure that everyone goes to university, the students manage to sound radical – but they’re actually denigrating their own interests by making themselves complicit in the hollowing out of both university life and what it means to be an adult.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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