Most universities have decided to pitch their fees at the maximum allowable of £9,000 a year. One hopes this is one part of a Cunning Plan to ensure that Plato’s vision of a real education is realised.
Plato was once invited by groupies to come to Sicily and try to turn the tyrant Dionysius into his ideal Ruler King. Plato gave it a go, but it did not quite work out first time round. Some years later, Plato was assured Dionysius was coming on very well in philosophy, and was persuaded to try again. When he arrived, he found Dionysius full of hopelessly garbled ideas but persevered and put him to the ultimate test: he outlined to Dionysius everything that would be required of him and the effort it would entail, if he were genuinely serious about his academic interests. That way, said Plato, you find out whether a pupil has the ‘divine spark’ in him or not, and it also absolves the teacher of responsibility if the pupil cannot meet the demands.
But Dionysius turned out, as Plato suspected he would, to be the sort of pupil interested in philosophy only as a form of sun-tan, supplying a superficial, overall veneer—a wonderful image—well fitted to those who liked soft living and were incapable of hard work. Plato wryly comments that Dionysius went on to write a book about the subject.
So if the huge fees that universities plan were to be combined with brochures that explained exactly what a real university education would entail rather than expounding on the number of nightclubs available, it could have the wholly beneficial consequence of making the young think very hard indeed about the value of going there or not, and ensuring that only those who seriously wanted to learn would apply. If that turned out to be the case, numbers would plummet to a level at which the very best of the bunch, rich or poor, could be educated free, and standards would rocket. Valueless institutions and courses would close, but if one wants an educational elite—and why spend state money on anything else?—there is no conceivable reason why they should survive. After all, any fool can get a sun-tan.