With six of the top 100 universities in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2014, London has a strong claim to be the greatest university city of them all. And that, argues Munira Mirza, the city’s deputy mayor for education and culture, feeds directly into the intellectual life of the capital, where there is “more of a publicly engaged academic culture than in other cities of the world, partly because of the high concentration”.
Although her main focus is on pre-18 education, Mirza is “interested in the cultural importance of universities and takes part in the discussions in this building [City Hall] about them”. She brings to the task both a deep belief in the ability of higher education to change lives and a certain irritation with what she sees as the “coercive consensus” found within the academy on some topics.
The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Mirza comes from the first generation in her family to go to university and won a place to read English at Mansfield College, Oxford. There she had “an amazing, mind-expanding time and learned a lot about the world, about history, about the deficiencies of my earlier education. I remember other people in a Shakespeare seminar talking about the plays they had seen in Stratford, when I’d only been to one production of Shakespeare at the Oldham Coliseum with my school.”
Mirza has spoken before about the “right-on” tutor who made a point of having a poster of The Simpsons on his wall, and she has little time for the notion that “there’s something inherently elitist about a canon” or indeed disciplines such as art history. If those who study it at university are, “stereotypically, middle-class white women”, that says nothing about the subject itself but simply that “it’s just not taught in state schools. You are narrowing the pool of people who are interested in it.”
Her own experience feeds into her approach to widening access. Mirza got a place at Oxford in the final year that the university had a separate entrance exam. “It was seen as elitist,” she recalls, “although it relied basically on blind marking – I think it was a real shame they got rid of it.”
Indeed, this strikes her as “emblematic of the mistaken way we think about access in this country…There has been a tendency to think that universities can fix the general problems of education by essentially lowering the threshold to get in…I think that’s a mistake.
“Universities have to maintain their integrity, be places of scholarly learning – what we need to do is improve the education system so that more people coming out at the end are capable and confident about going to university.”
Although she acknowledges that this is a long-term solution, Mirza believes that “universities are part of that solution…The model that they get involved in lower levels of education is something we have promoted quite a lot, in science and languages as well as the arts. We launched the London Schools Excellence Fund, worth £24 million, [and it’s] about raising standards of teaching in core academic subjects in schools. We are funding a hundred projects, many [involving] schools in partnership with universities.”
She points, for example, to the London Centre for Languages and Cultures led by Pembroke College, Oxford and housed at William Morris sixth-form college in Hammersmith, which began operating in January. This initiative builds on the success of the East End Classics Centre that Pembroke set up at BSix Brooke House sixth-form college in Hackney. The new centre should, she says, “create a hub that lots of schools in the surrounding area will benefit from”.
Meanwhile, Imperial College London is expanding its outreach programme in the sciences, while King’s College London is helping to improve maths teaching through a specialist school and Queen Mary University of London is working to tackle IT skills shortages among schoolteachers.
Although she is enthusiastic about London’s cosmopolitan diversity, Mirza is critical of cultural and educational policies that she says “stereotype people into boxes with a prejudice that the kind of thing they would be interested in is what’s familiar to them.
“There are places where, if you’re teaching Bangladeshi kids, the assumption is that they wouldn’t be interested in Shakespeare, they would want to know about Bangladeshi culture – and that is the worst kind of racist and parochial outlook.”
Such views have led Mirza to take a certain distance from “the kind of coercive consensus” she thinks is sometimes found within universities.
She worked as development director for the thinktank Policy Exchange, and took a PhD in cultural policy at the University of Kent, which she completed in 2009.
Mirza did her viva “on the day I was offered a job here as cultural adviser to Boris Johnson. There was a very interesting moment when I was talking to my external examiners and they asked me: ‘If you were in charge of cultural policy in London, what would you do differently?’ After the viva was over, I told them I’d just accepted the job!”
While at Policy Exchange, Mirza was lead author of a 2007 report, Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism, that claimed that “Government policies to improve engagement with Muslims make things worse. By treating Muslims as a homogeneous group, the Government fails to see the diversity of opinions amongst Muslims, so they feel more ignored and excluded.”
This argument was obviously controversial, but Mirza reports a “quite vicious” response from academics who focused on “quibbling with the technicalities of the research”. There was also “an assumption that, because it was published by a thinktank, it was therefore driven by ideological motives and there was nothing in it that was substantial, whereas we in the universities are much more objective”.
It is here that Mirza detects “a kind of coercive consensus around some of the debates in higher education around issues such as multiculturalism.
“There isn’t much appetite to criticise it as a policy or to entertain the notion that some of these ideas have had damaging effects. I think there’s a degree of self-censorship. I don’t think you get the critical level of discussion and debate [about multiculturalism] in the university sector that you do in the press and media. I think there’s more intelligent public conversation outside than there is inside.”