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THE RICHEST HOUR

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The Telegraph Online   |   Published 06.11.04, 12:00 AM

Sometimes, the best way into Shakespeare for a young student is a long chat with an interesting human being who also happens to be very learned. This was the assumption behind keeping the tutorial system at the heart of undergraduate teaching in Oxbridge. The student meets his tutor alone, usually once a week, has an hour-long conversation, in the course of which he reads out and discusses his essay, is given next week?s reading list and essay topic, and then sent away to do his own reading and writing. This is expected to teach him, not only some literature or history or philosophy, but also to think for himself, write well and manage his own time and freedom. Having worked quite well for a few centuries, this is about to change soon. In Oxford?s English School, tutorials and essay-writing might be cut down to half from 2006, supplemented by larger classes. This is sad and ill-advised. But why should it matter in India?

It matters because behind the change is a kind of thinking about academic excellence that could do a great deal of damage to Indian higher education as well. The democratization of quality higher education ? in Britain and in India ? is founded on a wrong-headed confusion of intellectual hierarchies with social class. Marxists in Calcutta, saffronites in Delhi and the New Labour in Westminster have all, in their own ways, opposed ?elitism? in higher education by failing to distinguish between deserved academic distinction and unfair social privilege. By this logic, equality means that everybody should have access to university, every university should be treated in the same way, and the state should pay for this education rather than the students or their parents. This has resulted in unmanageable numbers, chronic under-funding and declining standards. The situation is markedly different across the Atlantic. Independence from government funding and fierce private competition over the best students and faculty have gained Harvard, Berkeley and MIT the top three places in the latest world league table, in which Oxford and Cambridge are fifth and sixth respectively.

The misplaced egalitarianism runs alongside a devaluation of a commitment to undergraduate teaching; research and publications are seen to rake in more money. Helen Gardner or Taraknath Sen were first legendary teachers, and then published critics. Tutors in Oxford have pleaded ?exhaustion? with research and administration to push the tutorial cutback. But New Labour seems to be changing colour with its new education bill and its victory on top-up fees. It seems to be realizing that making all universities like one another will only dumb them down to a levelling mediocrity. And it is certainly no sin to take the most intelligent and give them the best education possible. An elitism based purely on intellectual merit can only be a good thing ? for everybody.



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