Britain’s universities are enduring a moment of intense scrutiny even as they enjoy something of a boom. Brexit looms, threatening their long run of global success; middle-class rage at tuition fees for domestic undergraduates has become a potent electoral force; and lack of social mobility, partly caused by an education system that replicates rather than disrupts privilege, is an acknowledged national disaster.
Into this complicated picture strides David Willetts, higher education minister during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and now chairman of the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank specialising in inequality. “I love universities,” he declares in the first line of A University Education, a book that (mostly) eschews political memoir in favour of history, analysis and argument. And he goes on to prove it, lavishing the sector with his attention to every detail and exploring almost every angle, from the birth of Oxford and Cambridge in the late Middle Ages through to the current challenges of globalisation and new technology.
Readers with a taste for the erudite anecdote will be delighted — if you are looking for a justification for the current market in higher education, how about the example set by the first students in 11th-century Bologna choosing which tutors’ wisdom to buy with their fees?