I’m delighted I didn’t go to university
Tony Blair’s pledge in 1999 that half of all young people should go on to higher education came true this year. Still, Nicky Haslam is delighted not to have attended university
Uor non- U? No, this isn’t about that, though I’m sure Nancy Mitford’s Muv would have fainted and Farve reached for the entrenching tool if any of their ‘rowdy girls’, as a contemporary described the Mitford sisters, ever suggested further education. I should really ask, are you Uni or non-uni? I’m proud to be non-uni.
Despite their lack of a university education, all the Mitfords, in their own way, became leading figures – even if some of them leaned rather to the Right. Theirs was not an age when many girls went to university; if they did, it was to one of the two established English places. No wallflower deb worth her salty tears wanted to be shunted off to St Andrews. The few that followed their light or dark blue brothers saw it as an Oxford-bagged or punt-kissed pre-cocktail party to the cocktail parties in nightly, white-tied London ballrooms, or gazing at the Prince of Wales in the Embassy.
Trouble is, the New Universities were considered rather… well, I’m afraid to say… non-u. There was a pause of 600 years after Oxbridge got going before Durham University was founded. After that, the Industrial Revolutionaries’ thirst for education, ritual and leadership created a whole slew of gloomily Gothic and shiny, magenta-bricked seats of higher learning, soaring skyward.
Even so, young men countrywide aspired to the Real Thing. My father, born in 1887 to a Bolton cotton-spinning burgher and schooled at beefy Sedbergh, went up to King’s, Cambridge, mingling with greenery-yallery figures such as E M Forster, James Elroy Flecker and his lifelong friend John Maynard Keynes, before he joined the Diplomatic Service.
My own brothers were expected to – and did – follow these illustrious Cantabrigian footsteps, although thereafter they had lacklustrous careers in things such as insurance. In my case, general dimness precluded my going to university. Wits, and perhaps even wit, had to suffice. Knowing that Mrs Hutton paid the orchestra at her daughter Barbara’s coming-out ball $20,000 extra NOT to play I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store) taught me as much about finance as any Keynesian principle learned at university.
By the 1960s, it was becoming de rigueur to go to university, whether to indulge in Bullingdon buckery or serious scholarship. But there is a difference between university-acquired book learning and the erudition that comes from a genuine love of things.
‘Travel broadens the mind’, provided it’s the mind that travels, discovering different interests from the prosaic subjects – classics; philosophy; physics; law – of university tradition.
These are absorbing to true scholars. But graduates run the risk of living their life in an intellectual bubble. They anxiously compare themselves with, and smugly dismiss, those with better degrees from supposedly inferior universities in supposedly easier subjects. Boris Johnson (2.1, Balliol) feels superior to David Cameron (First, Brasenose) because Boris did planet-brained Classics and Dave did less stellar PPE.
Meanwhile, the non-uni-goer wears knowledge lightly, and displays it – a supreme example being Paddy Leigh Fermor – with anecdote, detail, humour and humaneness.
Many of the contemporaries I admire didn’t opt for university. Yet each in their chosen field has become top of their particular tree. Algy Cluff cornered oil and bought the Spectator. Min Hogg, by founding The World of Interiors, opened all eyes to the breadth and depth of decoration. Besides being a seriously good painter, with her quicksilver mind Lindy Dufferin has transformed a ravishing but tumbledown Ulster estate into a hub of agricultural/dairy production.
Janet de Botton – though having easy entrée into Oxford or Cambridge as her Wolfson grandfather is one of only two men to have a college named for him at both (the other is Jesus) – has scored in the highest form of maths as an international bridge champion. Sir John Richardson, 94, is the world authority on Picasso and 20th-century painting.
Above all non-unis towers my friend the late Christopher Gibbs, who died in July, aged 79. After being kicked out of Eton, he learnt more than anyone about human artistic creativity. From carvings, architecture, paintings and furnishings to books, porcelain and textiles, he knew the history of who made them and wherefore, and whether or where they still existed. He conveyed this allembracing knowledge with a gentle, wistful touch; along with an even softer touch in persuading friends to donate massive sums to cultural institutions. He would hardly have learned all this at university.
Well, perhaps he could these days. After Tony Blair ordered the headlong stampede to university – any university – there may well be a philanthropy course alongside Ethical Hacking, David Beckhamry and Pizza Studies.
Going up to university has become the norm, but quality is going down. As Kingsley Amis said of undergraduates in 1960, ‘More will mean worse.’ Let’s hope there are still independently minded young who will say ‘ Non!’ to Uni.
‘Strange that you happened to invent the wheel just before my mother visits’