From time to time, I come across the argument that the more students you encourage to enter the educational system, the lower the standards become. I continue to be surprised by the range of people of who argue so: left-wing and liberal academics who bemoan declining standards; conservative governments that want to cut funding for universities; old fogeys who trot out the line that it used to better when they were young. The converse of this hypothesis is that fewer students mean higher standards of excellence.

However, the proposition has a basic flaw. Restricting student numbers is by no means a guarantee of excellence. We have only to think of the thick rich in universities and elite institutions to remind us of that fact. There is simply no correlation between larger student numbers and a drop in standards to the lowest common denominator. Instead, such increases may well ensure that the standards are raised, since there is a greater chance that the really bright students will turn up. As Ernst Bloch once put it, how many Einsteins have spent their lives behind a plough?

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