In higher education, actions speak louder than words

Class is a national fixation yet if we truly want social mobility we must stop talking about it and take steps to make it a reality

May 12, 2016
Man in suit flying in sky (social mobility)
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Since the “French disease” is a euphemism for syphilis, it may seem overly dramatic to call an obsession with class the British disease.

But let’s go with it anyway. The symptoms, in Britain’s case, are less severe than they once were, but you don’t always need suppurating sores to conclude that remedies are still required.

In reviewing the bloodwork in higher education, we have to start with Oxbridge.

In a webchat last week, Simon Armitage, the Oxford professor of poetry who grew up a working-class lad in Huddersfield before studying at Portsmouth Polytechnic and working as a probation officer in Manchester, was asked whether Oxbridge “strangles UK culture”.

His answer neatly summarised the vexed issue: “In my view, it definitely needs to work harder in admitting people from state schools,” he said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to at Oxford…seems to want to do something about it but nobody appears to have a firm plan of action. To my mind, it’s about recognising potential. Most applicants would seem to have the required qualifications (ie, a clean sweep of top grades) but get filtered out at interview – why?”

Why indeed. And why has it proved so hard over so many years for good intentions to turn into meaningful action (notwithstanding small-scale efforts, such as the foundation year that is to be trialled at Lady Margaret Hall)?

Another symptom is the handling of higher education in the press. The obsession with Oxbridge is itself an indication that all is not well; if you were to land from Planet Zog, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there were only two universities in the country – not that Oxbridge accounted for less than 2 per cent of our diverse system.

And among commentators on the right, the fear that the shift to mass participation could infect the traditional elite still causes regular eruptions of pus.

Take some of the coverage of last week’s Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, which saw the number of UK universities in the top 100 fall from 12 to 10.

Rather than focus on relevant factors, such as the improving quality of universities elsewhere in the world, The Daily Telegraph’s headline read: “British universities lose grip on world university rankings ‘because they are forced to focus on diversity’”.

There’s no evidence for this, and it’s worth noting that the two institutions to drop out – the universities of Bristol and Durham – are not renowned for an all-consuming focus on widening access. But that did not stop the line being picked up by Katie Hopkins, the Daily Mail’s provocateur in-chief, who told her 638,000 Twitter followers: “Only 5 UK universities are now in the global top 30 thanks to govt focus on diversity and postcodes over ability and effort.”

In our news pages this week, we scratch at more sore spots. One is a new “Uber-style” tutoring programme. It is billed as a service that will help poorer students prepare for higher education, but others say it’s just another potential barrier. Another is a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute on the underperformance of boys in general, and white, working-class boys in particular.

If class is still responsible for such preordination of opportunity and achievement, perhaps Armitage is right and it is time to try some more radical treatments to cure the disease.

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