A few months ago I met a group of foreign students who were about to complete their second year of BA courses at elite British universities. I asked them what clubs they had joined, what concerts and theatres they had attended and which museums and galleries they had visited. Much to my surprise, and their lack of of embarrassment, their unison reply was none. They attend lectures, they work in the libraries but they do nothing to develop their minds or their social skills beyond the parametres set by the regurgitative education system that nurtured them. Talk about pearls before swine.

The question that sprang to mind was why bother to go to a great British university if you are too scared or uninterested to break the boundaries created by ten years of swatting? As far as I can see, such students would be much better off enrolling at a good local university or on a much cheaper MOOC offered by an elite American or British university, if they are set on the Anglo-Saxon system. Of course, most MOOC certificates offered by elite universities do not equate to those awarded on the completion of attended courses. If they did, then there would be no point in paying the vast sums required to attend the real thing. Nor do such universities want to do to their awards what finance ministers seem willing to do to their currencies through quantitative easing. But many employers will be impressed by any piece of paper issued by Stanford, Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. If a student is unwilling to eat from the trough of experience that a great university has to offer, I can see absolutely no point of leaving home. Correct me if I am wrong.

Great universities, like great schools, build character. Character has never been in greater demand than it is today when faced with the irresistible march of artificial intelligence and the pressure that this is putting on the job market. What still gives people the edge is their ability to adapt to new conditions and to relate to other people in a positive, intelligent and creative way, something that three or four years in a library in a foreign land is unlikely to achieve. I would much prefer a robot doctor which has access to the knowledge available in the world wide net, than a doctor who has studied a text book and has no bedside manner. I am sure I am not alone.

Of course, aspiring students should want to attend the great universities, but they should not go if their only objective is a piece of paper. Increasingly, that piece of paper is no longer a guarantee of a job for life. Ability, flexibility and character are far safer bets.