Echoing earlier tweets to the same effect, on Tuesday Lord Adonis argued in his evidence to the Lords Economic Affairs Committee that the transformation of polytechnics into “post-92” universities as a result of the Further and Higher Education Act of that year was “a very serious mistake”.
Adonis said that “lower-performing former polytechnics” should be stripped of their university status to force a renewed focus on “vocational, particularly technical, higher education”. Meanwhile, although Theresa May made positive noises about inclusive higher education at the Conservative Party conference, she has also suggested in the past, as Times Higher Education noted, that perhaps post-92s should never have been allowed to offer a “full range of courses”.
I can’t help but take these attacks on post-92s personally. Like many people I have known born into a low-income family that later broke down and having attended the local “low-performing” comprehensive, I didn’t do well at school or college. As a teenager, I was often in trouble both in and out of school, and by the age of 21, following several dropouts and a GCSE retake, I had managed to accumulate only five GCSEs and one A level at grade C.
I had, however, developed a nascent interest in international politics, in part through reflecting on my own experience of structured inequality.
I was worried that I would be unable to find a university that would take me, but I contacted a lecturer at a post-92 after seeing an advert and was invited to make a clearing application. The university offered me a place, and in autumn of 2003 I enrolled on my degree.
Higher education was a profoundly transformative experience for me. With the intellectual strictures of GCSE and A-level curricula removed, and with the inspiring teaching of a set of passionate and critically engaged lecturers, I flourished. Ultimately, I was awarded a BA in politics, with first-class honours, and went on to achieve an MA in international relations, with distinction, and a fully funded PhD (the latter at a “red-brick” university).
One of the first things I learned as a politics undergraduate was that politics, dixit Max Weber, is also a vocation. So what does Adonis really mean when he laments the loss of “vocational” higher education as a result of the creation of post-92s?
While I started my journey in higher education from a position of relative disadvantage, many more students at post-92s are constrained by other, intersecting forms of social exclusion. During and after my PhD, I taught at both a Home Counties red-brick and at several post-92 universities. Black, Asian and minority ethnicity (BAME) students made up close to (or, in one case, more than) half the student body at the latter institutions, whereas I found most of my students at the former to be middle-class and white.
Older or “mature” undergraduates have also been much more common in my experience of teaching at post-92s, as have students from deprived, inner-city local areas in which the universities were based. Many of my students at these universities have been – like me – of the first generation in their family to enter higher education. Adonis’ proposals would disproportionately affect already marginalised and vulnerable social groups.
I now work at De Montfort University in Leicester. Leicester is a “super-diverse” city, with no one ethnic group (including white British) constituting a majority. De Montfort broadly reflects this diversity in its student body because, like many post-92s, it is especially attractive to local students who, for a variety of financial and sometimes cultural reasons, prefer to live with their family.
I was pleased when our vice-chancellor announced at the start of term that, partly in response to attacks like Adonis’, the university would embark on a campaign called “keep universities for the many”.
Adonis, and others who seek to take humanities and social sciences courses away from post-92s, are really seeking to deprive working-class, BAME and mature students of the ability to study for the sake of it, for their passionate interest, or for gaining what bell hooks calls “critical consciousness”; the skills to critically reflect on the operation of power and politics in everyday life. Indeed, for this very reason, I will now make a point, especially in this Black History Month (the UK’s 30th), of teaching my students about Adonis and his desire to deprive them of their hard-won right to study subjects such as politics.
I will explain that he would prefer that they find alternative “vocations”, and I will use his comments to consider in the classroom issues of social class, elitism and race, and to assess current debates around the collapse of “centrism”, the rise of “populism” and the structures of white supremacy.
Adonis’ thinking is emblematic of a wider way of seeing the world; so all those exasperated at being labelled “centrist dads” on social media when all they offered were sensible policy solutions should take heed: one white, middle-aged, wealthy man’s “sensible” is another person’s lived experience of oppression and inequality. You are merely being asked to wake up to the material and emotional damage that your ways of thinking can inflict.
Ben Whitham is lecturer in international relations at De Montfort University.