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

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Nicky Haslam

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’

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