Something that money can’t buy

I’m reading a new book by the American political philosopher Michael Sandel, called “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”. It’s an interesting and characteristically thoughtful book on the way that market-based ideas and mechanisms have invaded areas of American life, from the naming of sports stadiums to the market for body parts.

The two arguments he uses to caution against this invasion are: i) that people who apparently freely choose to sell a kidney, for example, are typically poor and therefore suffering a degree of compulsion; and ii) that the value of some goods and services is damaged, demeaned or changed by the act of putting them into a market context.

One of his examples, where the second argument is relevant, is elite university education. I’m pretty confident that one of the things that money can’t buy in the UK is a place at the University of Cambridge, either as student or professor. This hasn’t always been true in the past, though the exceptions have been pretty rare for a long time. Two members of the royal family were admitted in the 1970s and 1980s (prince Charles and his younger brother Edward). They were given places more for their position (sons of the head of state) than for the money they have (which they have only because their mother is head of state and heir to a family business of sorts – they apparently actually call it “the firm”). Both passed with respectable degrees. (It is said that Charles’ bodyguard, who accompanied him to lectures and supervisions, was himself able to pass the degree).

The latest prince to go to university, William, went to St. Andrews in Scotland, which is widely seen as a sort of Scottish Oxbridge (but with a lot of English people) and has a high academic reputation. His brother Harry went instead into the army and has done a lot of good things in the last few years, not least spending time helping orphans in Lesotho.

What Cambridge doesn’t do any more is offer places to people on the following grounds: they or their relatives give money; their parents went to Cambridge; they are good at sports; they are connected to influential people. I’m pretty sure that this is true of all the best British universities, though the London School of Economics tarnished its reputation (and that of the whole British university system) with its acceptance of a large donation from the son of the late Libyan dictator Gadaffi, just six weeks after awarding him a PhD. Saif Gadaffi is described by the Woolf Report as having “duped” the LSE, by getting outside help on his PhD. But the LSE was not accused of having given him a place with the hope of a donation

The contrast I notice is with the leading private US universities. A friend and former student of mine told me recently how he was giving donations to the prestigious US university from which he graduated, with the hope of helping to get one or more of his children a place there. It’s not as simple as buying a place; the university concerned would still require his children to be academically able but the donations might increase their chances. In effect, he is paying to jump the queue, conditional on his kids being good enough to get into the queue.

Larger donations do secure places for less able people at some private US schools. These schools also offer preference to legacy candidates (their parents were students). And there are the sports scholarships. Top universities need to select the majority of their students on merit to keep their academic standards high. But they offer quite a few places to students who would not have got a place on pure academic merit alone (*). When anybody starts going on about how marvellous Harvard Business School is I can’t help but point out that they admitted George W. Bush.

In this respect the private US universities are different from Cambridge, Oxford and other leading UK universities. It means that Cambridge and the others can truly say that one of the things that money can’t buy is a place at the university. I hope this remains true.

(*) This is all fairly well know in the US and documented in Richard Kahlenberg’s “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions” Century Foundation Press 2010

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