Oxbridge Diversity is Important, But Inequality in Higher Education Runs Much Deeper
The revelation last week that Oxbridge continues to recruit the majority of its students from white middle class families in the south east of England comes as no surprise. David Lammy is right to describe this as a racial and spatial apartheid. But if we’re serious about structural inequality our criticism of Oxbridge needs to go further.
Widening participation understandably remains the main way that inequality in higher education is understood in the UK. The chains that bind the white south-eastern middle class to Oxbridge are still to be broken – Oxbridge still desperately needs more students of colour, working class students of all backgrounds and from geographically marginalised areas. However, there is something deeply repetitive and restrictive about the way researchers and the media are drawn again and again to Oxbridge and the Russell Group as what matters in making our university system more equal.
A focus on Oxford and Cambridge narrows our understanding of what equality means in higher education. For David Lammy and many others working in or writing about higher education, the problem isn’t selection as a whole or having elite institutions – it’s essentially a problem of representation. This is entirely inadequate. If we frame educational inequality as being about social mobility into an elite for a selected few, we forget the majority.
In 2014-15 there were 290 black Caribbean students at London Metropolitan University compared to just 5 at Oxford and Cambridge combined. There were over 2,200 students from ethnic-minority backgrounds at London Met that year - nearly as many as the total number of students at Oxford (2620 in the 2014-15 intake, of whom 2165 were white). Widening participation – higher education for students from families who have never been to university does not happen at Oxbridge. For the majority of students it happens at under-funded universities in big cities. These universities don’t have endowments from wealthy capitalists and dead imperialists which they can use to subsidise three course meals in medieval robes for its undergraduates. They cannot offer generous bursaries to their students – there are too many students who qualify. Tutorials of 1-3 students are rare or non-existent. We cannot talk about an apartheid in higher education without thinking about higher education as a deeply unequal system.
Of course it matters that Oxbridge remains a finishing school for the south-eastern white middle class – that must change. But if we continue to only focus on Oxbridge then we are missing the woods for the trees. Worse than that, we are re-creating the 11 plus for the twenty-first century. The 11 plus was based on the logic of raising up a ‘gifted few’ – a minority of working class students who were deemed sufficiently ‘able’ to gain access the male-dominated white middle class, academic education of the post-war era. This system eventually crumbled because of the gross inequalities which funnelled generations of working class students, including the overwhelming majority of the children of post-war migrants, into stigmatized secondary modern schools.
Inequality in higher education is no less grotesque than it was in the grammar school era. None of that is to undermine the importance of widening participation work in the here and now. Huge improvements have been made by the hard work of committed lecturers, post-16 educators and widening participation practitioners and this must continue. But widening participation is a policy without a strategy. If the long-term goal is ‘better’ social mobility, improved access to elite universities for marginalised communities this is perfectly compatible with continuing forms of apartheid in education and society more broadly. Is the ultimate aim of reforming our education system really just a more representative elite?
In the current political context of Brexit and Grenfell which have underlined the deep divisions and inequalities in the UK, framing educational inequality in this way no longer makes sense. We need to think about radical structural reforms to higher education. This means re-balancing the finance of higher education so economic resources are not concentrated in two institutions which serve a spatial, socio-economic and racial elite. It’s important to have clusters and concentrations of researchers – but that does not require aristocratic luxuries in an age where so many have so little. It means thinking about systems of quotas at our elite universities and re-thinking graduate recruitment so that recruiters for top firms do not simply return to the universities they themselves attended. Calls for comprehensive universities with radically different forms of admissions must now be heeded. Higher education in the UK and in England especially is experiencing a deep social and democratic crisis. This is a crisis which the vast majority of university vice chancellors have no answers to. They have given themselves gigantic pay rises whilst freezing staff pay and, let’s not forget, collaborating with the tuition fee increase to £9,000.
Comprehensive universities which are democratically controlled by students, staff and the local community are not incompatible with continuing research excellence and maintaining international reputations. But they would be incompatible with gross spatial, social and economic inequalities between universities. Educational apartheid does not begin or end in the halls of Oxbridge, this is simply the pinnacle of a system of learning which is structurally unequal and unfair. Social mobility is not enough, not as a long-term solution. In our legitimate outrage at the inequalities of Oxbridge, we should not forget that the problem is much bigger than that. We need structural change and we need it now.