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Higher Education and the ‘intelligent plumbers’ theory

A common tactic when found out is to divert attention elsewhere. The release of student data from 2018/19 by the Department for Education (DfE) yesterday, ‘Widening participation in higher education: 2020’ and ‘Statistics: further education and skills’ tells the same sorry tale of a wide gap in access to universities between the most and least advantaged students. To divert attention from these stark facts in advance, the government used a diversionary tactic by attacking the effectiveness of universities and thus pointing the blame for poor social mobility someplace else. Advocating improvements in further education, something cut back by the same regime for years, hides the real intention. It seems that class divisions will be further exacerbated and any concession to universities fuelling improved social mobility has been abandoned. But the flawed theory is that at least the elite rulers will get access to intelligent plumbers.

Three years ago, I heard a leading ‘Young Fabian’ support the idea of diverting young people away from university and the type of education he himself had enjoyed. He deployed the extraordinary elitist proposition that “at least we would get intelligent plumbers”. He displayed a crass disregard for the important role of those who produce and work for the leaders and their guardians. He surely understood the consequences of his proposition, that was made in the light of in his own self-interest and possible future need for a plumber. The diversion of the less well-off to technical training makes the lives of the so called ‘elite’ ruler class, and their protectors, much easier. Criticism of the government’s approach has been mounting as the consequence of abandoning universities as drivers of improved social mobility becomes apparent. 

In Times Higher Education on Wednesday, Chris Cunningham and Colin Samson of Essex University concluded that ‘Redirecting the disadvantaged into FE will further stunt UK social mobility’. They propose the government tactic as one of ‘Gatopardism’. This is the Spanish expression of “changing everything so that everything stays the same”. Sure enough, as more students enter university, the government has ensured that the relative gap between advantaged and disadvantaged remains the same. Bridging the gap in equality of access becomes futile if the strategy is to let many more in whilst at the same time maintaining the same level of inequality. It’s a another case of the illusion observed by Orwell in ‘Animal Farm’, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which” and echoed by others in the words “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

Creating the illusion.

Recent announcements by the government point toward a move to increase vocational training in post-16 education. This promise started back in March with the somewhat optimistic budget made before the full impact of COVID-19 was apparent (see TEF 11th March 2020 ‘The budget first-aid box and a research feeding frenzy’). The hope is that there is a genuine commitment to reversing the catastrophic decline in Further Education Colleges in recent years. This would seem a sensible strategy in providing opportunities for the ‘50%’ or more that do not attend university. However, the government has accompanied this move with an extraordinary, and crudely coordinated, attack on universities and their provision (See TEFS 1st July 2020 ‘Government minister points the finger of blame and inadvertently admits government policy on universities and social mobility has failed’ and 15th July 2020 "It doesn't matter about looking at which groups don't get to university"). This is illusory as it makes everyone think things will improve whilst simultaneously making things worse for many more. This is a flagrant attack at a time when most find their institutions are in an ongoing precarious state because of COVID-19. Job losses are about to rise as predicted by UCU General Secretary, Jo Grady, in the Guardian on Tuesday ‘Around 30,000 jobs may be on the line at universities. We have to fight back’

There is no disguising the aim at this time is to divert attention away from universities to more vocational education. The student access data released yesterday by the DfE, ‘Widening participation in higher education: 2020’, reveals that there has only been a snail paced improvement in the gaps between the most and least advantaged over time. TEFS will look more closely at this new release of data in another posting.

The vast majority of students from independent schools enter university. So called ‘working class’ males are the least represented, with females from the same background not far behind. TEFS view has been that the glaring gap will take many years to bridge unless there is a radical rethink on the use and availability of resources for many such students (See TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’). But that might seem too uncomfortable a proposition for those manning the ramparts of privilege.

Where are such ideas coming from?

It is important that we distil to its essence the underlying philosophical basis and assumptions that motivate our leaders. The UK has been the bastion of a class system for centuries. However, the underlying ideas behind this go back even further. The leaders protect their own interests and those of their supporters and protectors at every turn. This approach is rooted in an assumption of superiority and is counter to any notion of equality. In modern times, there is a determination to bend our understanding of genetics to amplify the idea of ‘good breeding’ and suitability for advanced education (see TEFS 10th January 2020 ‘Genetics, Intelligence, Social Mobility and Chinese Whispers’). This is the crumbling cement that holds the class system together.

Open Access to higher education is, however, a weak spot, dare I say ’Achilles heel’, of the bastion’s defences. Opening the gates to anyone in a free and equal university system becomes a threat to the elite if it is allowed to actually succeed. But those who seek to lead must heavily disguise their real objectives at every turn or risk being caught red-handed. The veil has slipped in recent weeks and there are genuine and widespread suspicions about the underlying motivations of our government. 

This tendency was spotted by Thomas Moore in his text ‘Utopia’ as far back as 1516 He advocated that those actively seeking power often could not be trusted with, “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all.” Unfortunately, his refusal to back the supremacy of the King was also spotted as a problem for the rulers and he was executed in 1535. The spread of his ideas had become a monumental threat to them. 

Socrates is turning in his grave.

Thomas Moore was, in turn, influenced by ancient Greece and its philosophies, and it is a fair assumption that most of the Conservative leadership have been similarly schooled. It sets the scene for becoming skilled in the art of maintaining power. For example, most will have been introduced to a critical appraisal of the ideas of Socrates as written by Plato in dialogue form in ‘Republic’. It lays out the pitfalls of leadership with a minefield of arguments about the merits of various types of state and government. Ever since, those exposed to an ‘elite' education become drawn to the idea that they are destined to be the rulers. Boris Johnson was educated at Eton, then Classics, ancient literature, and classical philosophy at Balliol College Oxford. Like his former boss, Michael Gove who studied English at Oxford, Dominic Cummings attended Exeter College, Oxford to study Ancient and Modern History, a heady mixture indeed. 

One thing is for sure, they will all have been indoctrinated in the idea of the elite (they see as ‘us’) and the others ('them'). Often they challenge higher education as ‘Left Wing’ indoctrination as described in the Adam Smith Institute (much admired by Thatcher) paper ‘Lackademia: why do academics lean left?’. Their calls for more ‘academic freedom’ are hollow since the real intent is to promote more right-wing discourse whilst stopping student unions from promoting “niche activism and campaigns” (see TEFS 16th July 2020 ‘University Restructuring Regime: Influence is power’). Yet they fail to admit to their own elitist indoctrination that has much greater and far reaching consequences for the rest of us. They see themselves as the ‘Philosopher Kings’ proposed by Plato but fail to understand why the staff in universities in the front line might wish to foster a fairer system of education.

In ‘Republic’ (see *NOTE below), Plato sets out his interpretation of the ideas of Socrates who conducted as series of dialogues with other Greek thinkers. Socrates was careful not to commit anything to writing in his time. It is a comprehensive analysis of types of government and lays the foundation of most of western society today. The ideal state sees clear divisions of labour that delineates society, firstly into producers and workers. This would include plumbers in our modern society. Secondly, the guardians, who include the military, police, civil service, and other organisations working for the state. Finally, they protect the smallest group, the leaders, who could be thought of as ‘Philosopher Kings’. The basic idea is they should be the most intelligent and gifted to match their responsibility. It is easy to see how our modern democracies might have gone off the rails. 

Indeed, there are many critics. Philosopher Karl Popper, in his seminal two volume work 'The Open Society and its Enemies' in 1945, launched a fierce critical analysis of what is wrong with adhering to such ideas in the modern world. He saw Plato’s ideal as a totalitarian dystopia and a misrepresentation of the democratic ideals of Socrates with, “What a monument of human smallness is this idea of the philosopher king. What a contrast between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesmen against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom, and who tried to teach him what matters most — that we are all frail human beings.”

Plato was more careful than Socrates, who was executed for his ideas. Indeed, Socrates must be turning in his grave. Lea Ypi, Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics made similar observations in the Spectator last July (25th July 2019) with the question ‘What would Plato think of Boris Johnson?’. He warned that demagogues pose the greatest threat with “The Ancient philosopher warned that the danger of demagogy lies dormant in all democracies”. It would be more pertinent to ask what Socrates thought of Boris Johnson and the influence of Plato. He might have liked Popper more.

The philosopher plumber.

Getting back to the main thesis and away from the failings of demagogy. The obvious corollary arising from the ‘intelligent plumber’ theory is that existing plumbers are not intelligent. This is of course a profound mistake and illustrates ignorance on behalf of the proponents of the theory. You only have to consider the rapid advances in technology, and the qualifications required to be a modern-day plumber, to realise the mistake. There are multiple qualifications needed to succeed as a plumber (Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering). Registration, regulations, and particularly safety, underpin the need. This includes the safe operation of gas boilers and other equipment. Now add the forthcoming demands of green energy and ‘renewable heat’ technologies, such as solar, ground and air pumps. It is hard to see how those schooled in humanities and the classics are themselves capable enough to understand the technology. 

Scott Samuelson, who teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa made an interesting proposition in ‘The Atlantic’ in 2014 with ‘Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers’. He argued that liberal arts and the humanities aren't just for the elite. He is right, and teaches philosophy to many ‘technical’ people in the college, including plumbers. He is offering a different perspective of the elite leaders with “Traditionally, the liberal arts have been the privilege of an upper class….. because their birth right is to occupy leadership positions in politics and the marketplace….. the goods of the liberal arts get coded as markers of privilege and prestige, so that the upper class can demarcate themselves clearly from those who must work in order to make their leisure and wealth possible”.

He concludes there is a need for wider education of everyone with “The fire will always be sparked. Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?”

A more detailed call for widening the education base of everyone, ‘technical’ or otherwise, was made by Mary Midgley of Newcastle University with ‘Philosophical Plumbing’ (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 33:139-151,1992). She concluded that “wisdom itself matters everywhere, and everybody must start from where they are.”

A broader curriculum is essential for all students.

I would go further and say that all science and technology students should be tutored in philosophy, the arts and history to some extent. Particularly in relation to the history and philosophy of science. Equally, all arts and humanities students should be tutored in the scientific and technical basis of the technology they deploy every day. Should we teach some plumbing to philosophy students?

I was fortunate enough to be offered a ‘Liberal Studies’ option as a science student between 1973 and 1975. I spent two hours per week for two years studying English Literature. In my third year, when in work experience at the Water Research Centre, I studied A-Level English at Stevenage College. This was an invaluable experience overall that should be offered to students today. As an aside, if you think my current writing has flaws, imagine how bad it might have been without the experience. As a lecturer in the 1980s, I worked with a colleague to offer a similar experience to our undergraduate students over a three-year period. We concentrated on the history and philosophy of science, and the role of creativity in science, in a series of voluntary lectures. They were very well attended. However, other colleagues were strongly opposed to our initiative and we eventually had to stop. 

The conclusion is, if the ‘elite’ wish to stay in control they must surely stay one jump ahead. But this has inherent dangers as they, in turn, fear the possibility that those who are producing or working begin to read philosophy and overtake. This means that their cover will be blown and there is danger that everyone will see the situation from another perspective. However, this enlightenment should go both ways if we are to open equal chances for everyone. The ruling elite might ponder their failure to understand science and technology and recognise the narrow indoctrination they have been subjected to in their education. 

Perhaps Socrates through Plato should get the final word as a warning to our current leaders “And may we not say, Adeimantus, that the most gifted minds, when they are ill-educated, become pre-eminently bad?.........Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst”. However, they might want to abandon this dubious advice, “Then if anyone at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good”.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

*NOTE. There are many translations that vary a lot in style and detail. I have a very old copy of the Penguin Classics version but I like the translation, detailed annotations and analysis from the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University


  1. No, Professor Larkin: your writing is not flawed. On the contrary, it is most lucid and thought-provoking... thank you...


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