A University of Oxford professor renowned for his research on inequality has forcefully criticised the institution for failing to recognise the extent to which it is “responsible” for the city of Oxford’s social problems.
Danny Dorling, who grew up in Oxford and is Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the university, writes in the latest issue of the Oxford Magazine that the university’s draft strategic plan for 2018-23, on which it is currently consulting, “contains just one paragraph” on improving relationships with local and regional communities.
He adds: “Perhaps Congregation [the university’s parliament] may insert some lines in the plan that read:…‘We will try to understand the extent to which we are responsible for the city being the most unaffordable to live in in the UK, having the tightest of greenbelts, having one of the most divided school systems in Europe, and suffering from a health divide between Oxford’s neighbourhoods that has grown so widely in recent decades’.”
Professor Dorling told Times Higher Education: “The word ‘Oxford’ is used here as if the city doesn’t matter, other than servicing the university. That creates all kinds of problems for the university.
“The obvious one is it’s very hard for [university] staff to get housing. But then the university thinks it only has to worry about that and doesn’t realise you also want to have local schools and shops that work – and if primary school teachers can’t house themselves, that’s not great either.
“It’s this ridiculous thing of having to teach a university that it is part of something bigger.”
Professor Dorling said the university was “more culpable than any other actor” for the city’s notoriously high property prices through its role in the creation of the city’s greenbelt and the “constriction of Oxford”, which mean that the city has seen “almost no building in the last 30 years”. The university now “also increases house prices by giving housing allowances to academics”, he added.
Professor Dorling continued: “If you’re trying to work out how come Oxford has a school at the bottom of the league table nationally, a typical job of a mum at that school would be cleaning bedrooms [in one of the colleges].”
He highlighted the fact that neither the university nor any of the colleges recognise the Oxford Living Wage, a minimum set by Oxford City Council for its workers and agency staff that currently stands at £9.69 an hour.
The university is committed to the rate set by the Living Wage Foundation, currently £8.75 an hour. But approaches across colleges vary.
If the colleges are “paying the minimum wage or a living wage but not the Oxford one, then the parent…loses about £500 a year” on a 22-hour week, Professor Dorling said, equating this to the price of a decent “secondhand computer”. He added: “Oxford University and colleges that choose not to pay the Oxford Living Wage are helping a child not to have a computer at home; then we don’t get the GCSE results.”
Others at the university argue that the draft strategic plan contains many priorities relating to local communities. There is a commitment to “build a stronger and more constructive relationship with our local and regional community” (the paragraph criticised as insufficient by Professor Dorling), which includes an aim to “increase the scale of innovation and translation in the medical and health sciences, including with our local NHS partners”. The Congregation will be able to review the plan.
More generally, Professor Dorling said English universities should consider what might happen if “we get a Labour government elected in 2022 in the middle of a post-Brexit crisis”, with tuition fees abolished and perhaps levels of maintenance support reduced.
Far greater numbers of young students would have to “stay at home and go to university, which is the norm [in Europe] and it’s cheaper” for individuals and government, he added.
Professor Dorling also said: “English universities should realise that they are slowly going to head, or maybe even quickly head, towards a more European model where a majority of children are going to go locally…We only talk about the civic university in England because we’ve managed to become so divided [from cities].”