Smith, despite accusations of Connery-esque misplaced nationalism, was justly proud of the Scottish system of universities, which ran on a radical (by today’s standards, at least) system in which students paid their professors directly. Scotland had begun the 18th century with the humiliating Act of Union, which rendered it subject to the British Empire and shuttered its parliament. The country then boasted only three universities, all of which taught an obsolete, traditional medieval curriculum (in Latin, no less), and carried a reputation as a backwater of subsistence farmers and awkward, only recently semi-civilized rubes.
But by the end of the century, it had five of the most cutting-edge universities in Europe, one of the world’s best medical schools, and a booming professional class from which its southerly neighbor and occupier frequently drew its doctors, lawyers, and professors. It had pioneered the study of English literature as a subject, having perceived that for many of its students, raised speaking Scots or Gaelic, English actually was a foreign language. It offered up world-class Enlightenment philosophes such as David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith, all of whom were at least partially educated in its universities.
Having studied in Glasgow for several years before attending Oxford, Smith, writing near the end of the 18th century, was in an excellent position to evaluate the relative merits of different ways to fund a university education. Despite the lingering need for the most elite of aspiring Scottish academics to seek the imprimatur of the storied, Ivy-covered universities abroad, Smith vastly preferred his home country’s university system. It had prepared him for Oxford, and he groused eloquently and at length about the main difference: In Scotland, students exercised complete consumer control over with whom they studied and which subjects they deemed relevant. Oxford—and in fact most other European universities—employed a system similar to the way that American universities handle tuition payments today: One tuition payment was made directly to the university, and the university decided how to distribute what came in.
Oxford’s system had a lot going for it. Talented poor- and middle-class students who passed the entrance examinations with especially high marks (like Smith) were eligible for full, residential fellowships: tuition, living costs in quaint if miserable dorms, books, and even small stipends for travel fully covered. Scottish universities, on the other hand, rarely offered living facilities at all. Most students lodged with families in town.
Oxford sounds idyllic, but Smith points out how it often fell short of the Scottish system, where direct payment of fees served as motivation for faculty responsibility. “The endowments of [British] schools and colleges have necessarily diminished more or less the necessity of application in the teachers,” Smith writes in his opening sally against bundling the costs of education. “In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the publick professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.”