The Guardian has done a data exercise to analyse the social composition of Britain's universities. As you might expect, dripping is not on the menu at the Russell Group universities: Oxford manages a magnificent 11.5% of students from manual/occupational and few of its peers manage more than 30%. The Hegemon is near the top, with 53% of the intake drawn from what's traditionally known as the working class.
Obviously there are problems with classification here: there are several working classes and beneath them, a 'non-working' class which seems to have been abandoned. In a post-industrial society, it's always more complicated than the old days of a white male mas-industrial proletariat. And of course the posh universities aren't entirely to blame for having a socially-elevated intake: as they keep pointing out, getting working-class people to apply to Oxford is difficult. Though I think they protest too much: I read that Oxford's 'outreach' programme last year took a roadshow to such benighted, aspiration-free and deprived places as… Eton College, Manchester Grammar School (private) and other sink-holes of social exclusion.
I'm enormously proud of our 53%. As a socialist, I know that education is power. We open our doors to the majority of the population which has never been able to pull its economic, cultural and political weight, thanks to the entrenched privilege of the jealous middle and upper classes. But it's also complicated. I worry when I hear the law students and others talk about getting rich - encouraged by people like Constance Briscoe, who told them that being rich = victory. Yes, I want my students to have a greater share of the economic pie, but I'm not at all interested in encouraging individual greed. For me, the purpose of mass education is to enable what we'll call the working class to access the social, cultural, political and economic goodies previously reserved for their supposed superiors.
The debate around mass education has been around for a long time. Matthew Arnold felt that it was the only way to stop the swinish mob rising up and smashing art and culture to pieces. Nietszche and his followers felt that the mob was incapable of education, and that offering it to them only encouraged them to disobey their enlightened Masters. Some on the hard left suspect that a bourgeois education is simply a hegemonic tool for conveying anti-proletarian ideology. Not me: I know that getting access to culture doesn't mean forcing them to accept dominant interpretations - we're way past that kind of hypodermic needle model of transmission. My students are - or are potentially - independent, critical thinkers, despite eating dinner at noon and sending the port round the wrong way.
However, there is a down side to mass working-class education. Some of my siblings went to élite universities (Cambridge, Imperial, Durham). Visiting them, I realised what exactly everybody else is excluded from. Not just the networks which ensure a gilded and powerful life (social capital, it's called), but the sheer resources. Art on the walls. Any book you might ever want. Nobel prize-winners reading your work. Subsidised holidays (oh yes) and food. Tiny classes and one-to-one tuition. My siblings felt that they'd earned it through getting good A-levels. I felt that it illustrated the maxim 'to those that have, shall be given more'. I look at my students, juggling jobs, and child-care, and money worries, turning up to a university bursting at the seams, and wonder what they could do if we had one-to-one tuition, if we could send them off on cultural adventures, have seminars of fewer than thirty students, or a free creche, or star researchers on the books, and the globe's movers and shakers nurturing them. Perhaps they need it more than the kids who've gone from Eton to Oxford.
What I'm saying is this: there are two educational systems. The élite one is wonderful, but it's a bespoke model in a culture which really believes that there is an intellectual aristocracy which deserves all the treats. Then there's a warehouse or factory educational model in which as many kids are crammed into knackered buildings as possible. The élite take degrees in PPE, Art History, Medicine and the like. Many of mine do 'vocational' courses designed to fit them into the neoliberal economy, rather than train them for power. They are discriminated against, and excluded.
So it's a dilemma. I want mass, working-class education. I want it for social justice. I want working class students to do Medicine and Anglo-Saxon and PPE, but I want them to be independent of the cultural and ideological positions inherent in hegemonic educational structures. I don't want them tossed the crumbs of a 'good-enough' training scheme which fits them for lower-management. I also want people to choose non-academic training and be proud and respected.
How? Er… Now you're asking. Certainly pre-university education must push students to aspire, but the university system currently seems like a vehicle for retarding social mobility rather than enhancing it. Personally, I'd abolish them all. Seriously: I'd amalgamate them and distribute subjects and expertise nationally. If Russell Group teachers are so great, let's see them teach my students. I'd end the REF research funding structure, which only exists to make sure serious funding goes to Russell Group universities, and I'd end pre-results admissions and interviews. No cosy chats designed to establish whether a student is 'one of us'. I'd also abolish the private schools, of course, or at least remove their charitable status.
Curriculum is essential too: the major contribution of progressive humanities departments is widening the canon from texts approved by the cultural elite to the sum of human cultural activity. Thanks to Raymond Williams, Cultural Studies, Reader-Response, Post-Colonialist, Feminist and Queer Theory, we insist that all cultural artefacts and practices are inherently worthy of study. I put working-class writing, Welsh writing and all sorts of overlooked gems on the course lists without feeling tokenistic or patronising. This might seem obvious to you, but have a look at Palgrave's The Short Story in Britain by Maunder, Robbins and Liggins. One chapter is devoted to the short story in Scotland. One sentence of the chapter on Scotland mentions Wales. That is a perfect example of elitist, metropolitan exclusion-by-canon: the short story is central to Scottish and Welsh literary culture, for a wide variety of reasons - yet if you took this book, with it's exhaustive title, you'd never know.
And that's why we need to worry about class and education.