Gary Day

March 23, 2007

Chaucer said that in spring folk long to go on package holidays, or something like that. Chance would be a fine thing. The nearest we get to a break is a change of job. After the furore of my last column one writer suggested that I might like a new post, for then I could "engage with much deeper minds". Flattered as I was by this tribute to my intellect, I was a bit put out as it implied there were no such minds at De Montfort University. Well, just for the record, an external examiner recently said that the dissertation of one of our undergraduates was the best he had read in 20 years. The clever, the conscientious and the couldn't care less. You get them everywhere.

So why go through the interview process? To give silly answers to silly questions. "How would you deal with a difficult colleague?" "With a water pistol." Great fun, but it's not enough to make me fill out the application form. The universities of England are becoming like the average high street, which since they aspire to be businesses is probably where they belong. Whether it's Loughborough or London, you research, teach, administrate, then go on Saga holidays that apparently involve a lot of sex. Something to look forward to then.

The drift to uniformity is apparent throughout the education system, a phrase I'm stuck with until I can come up with a better one. Take subjects.

There's nothing distinctive about them anymore. At least not according to a recent contributor to English in Education , the journal of the National Association for the Teaching of English, who declared that reading the ingredients on a sandwich pack was as demanding as reading a modern play.

That certainly alleviates the boredom of standing in the queue at Waitrose, but it shows a very poor grasp of The History Boys . And how about this from a dean of humanities? "There is no inherent reason why it is not more noble to read for an English degree than to study wave patterns in a surfing degree." It makes a nice change to see nobility offered as a criterion of study rather than employability, but even I think the term is outmoded. And of course the two subjects are different. Surfers look better in shorts for a start, and whoever heard of a balanced English lecturer?

The same applies to universities. They vary. There is a big class divide between Oxford and Wolverhampton. Guess which one draws half its students from the lower socioeconomic groups? As in politics, business and the media, Oxbridge predominates. If you have a moment, check out the background of staff at traditional and even some new universities. My admittedly cursory research, confined to English, suggests that they are drawn from a fairly narrow range of institutions both here and abroad. Oh yes, privilege is alive and well. And it can be very nasty.

A friend of mine went for an interview at a posh place. The panel wore jeans and T-shirts. He wore a suit. Well, what can you expect? His dad was a bus driver. When he walked in to give his presentation one of the panel remarked: "Oh, I didn't realise we were dressing Marks and Spencer." And yet at lunch he was told not to get someone a cup of coffee as that "destroyed the democratic spirit of the department". This is not the sort of muddled thinking you expect to find in an elite establishment. Well, maybe it is now.

Class is the great unspoken in higher education. Universities are seen as a way of escape because a degree means a better job. If that's true, why is it that social mobility has slowed down while the number of people going to universities has grown? And there is at least anecdotal evidence of bias against post-92 institutions in some sections of the job market. A representative from a prestigious firm of accountants once told me that he didn't bother to visit new universities; and his is by no means a lone voice. Policies designed to attract more working-class students to university will have little effect as long as the establishment is interested only in recruiting its own.

But it's not just the job market where students find the door closed against them. For centuries those from lower down the social scale have been denied access to the resources of "high" culture. And there are still those who want to keep them out. They say that the cultural heritage is elitist, worthless or too difficult for those from non-traditional backgrounds to understand. What they really mean is that they don't want them to think. Especially about class. Unless used in the sense of style.

Class continues to blight education, and it won't disappear by asking applicants if their parents have degrees. Revolution, anyone?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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