The Oxford Union’s third official debate of Michaelmas term was a lively and at times confused affair, with the participants debating not only the merits of going to university, but also arguing over the semantics of the motion and even the merits of well-known TV programmes.
The first speaker for the proposition was Geraldine Van Bueren, a leading professor of International Human Rights Law at Queen Mary, University of London. “University education has started to be seen a privilege,” she began, “and privilege and equal opportunity do not go hand in hand.” Pointing to declining numbers of mature students, the professor brought up the examples of France and Austria, where university education costs hundreds of euros, and Denmark and Sweden, where it’s free.
Barnaby Lenon, former Head Master of Harrow School and Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, was the first speaker for the opposition. He opened by arguing that this issue is a product of the “everyone must now win prizes” mentality following the Second World War. Mr. Lenon also argued that some degrees were not worth their value, suggesting “200,000 students getting degrees in business would be better off getting a job in a business.” He finished by warning against the notion of “equality of outcome,” saying: “Selection by ability has become taboo, but the idea of “excellence for all” is nonsense.”
The second speaker for the proposition, Will Hutton, began his argument by saying that “universities should be part of the society from which the originate, and not be above it.” He quoted £8,400 as the current average university student’s debt upon completing their degree, and said that “this will deter more and more people from entering higher education.” He also took direct aim at Mr. Lenon’s disapproval of degrees such as Communications, Business, and Marketing, and labelled the argument that universities should be more selective as a “siren call that would prevent people from common backgrounds from entering university.”
Tim Waterstone, second speaker for the opposition and the founder of the eponymous chain of book shops, first set out by defining the term “right”:
“No one has the right to be a scholar. You do have the right not to be discriminated against, but there is no guarantee to go to university.” He distinguished higher education from primary and secondary, which is free and accessible, “Children need to become aware of their rights, the consequences of their choices, and attention from society against adverse circumstances of birth.”
Aaron Porter, former President of the NUS, hit back forcefully against both Mr. Lenon and Mr. Waterstone, arguing that “the benefits of university education are for the whole society and the economy – it shouldn’t be linked to just a career path.” Mr. Porter also added, though “the argument about higher education shouldn’t be just about higher tuition fees,” he did believe “this plays a role in restricting the promotion of highly motivated individuals.”
The third speaker for the opposition, and perhaps the most anticipated of the night, was Spencer Matthews, the main star of the reality show Made in Chelsea, whose speech was hastily written on one side of a sheet of paper with the help of Union officers before the debate. Mr. Matthews posed the opening question, “Is university really for everyone?” He gave the example of his father and brother, “who didn’t go to university and turned out just fine.” He also raised doubts about the seriousness with which university education is pursued. “Would the state be proud of Jamie Lang, going to Leeds, hammered every day?” he asked, in reference to co-star in Made in Chelsea.
David Willetts began his speech as the fourth speaker on the proposition side with the claim that “the two biggest lies of tonight’s debate is that something should be a right for a minority, funded by general taxes, and that university access should necessarily be restricted to fewer numbers.” The Minister of State for Universities and Science claimed: “The adoption of the Robbins’ principle led to the obligation for funding universities to fall on the generality – that is, taxpayers – paying for a larger graduates, which can’t be fair.” At this point, however, Willett’s speech was interrupted by a group on the balcony which unfurled a large white banner above the Union Floor, onto which were painted the words “FUCK YOU DAVID WILLETTS (AND MADE IN CHELSEA IS SHIT TOO).”
Stephen Dorrell, MP for Charnwood, who was the last speaker on the opposition, concluded the debate by saying that “the last thing we need is for a human rights lawyer to swoop in and tell us how to run a government.” He added that human rights “is a fine basis to ensure basic rights,” but “not a good basis for policy-making.” He criticised Professor Van Bueren’s stance as “unenforceable with regard to universities.”