Now, despite the evidence to the contrary, chiefly here on Plashing Vole, I'm not a violent rodent. But this evening, just as a diversion from writing lectures, I checked the education news. Because that's how I roll, alright. And what did I find? That the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University is a man in sore need of a public booting.
What did he say? Well, he started off predictably, by demanding that his university and those like it be allowed to charge whatever fees they wish. Wrong (and bear in mind that they're amongst the richest educational institutions on the planet), but a reasonable point.
What really got my foot itching was the way he put it:
Top universities that offer better outcomes for students should be allowed to charge significantly higher tuition fees than institutions that provide an inferior education, Oxford University's vice-chancellor has said.Now a snob might consider my university 'inferior'.
We lack quadrangles, honeyed stone and Nobel prize winners. Tailcoats and gowns are rarely sighted on campus, and there are no clubs restricted solely to Etonians and charging £3500 just for the costume. Our students tend not to come from what the Daily Mail likes to call the 'great schools', i.e. the £35,000 per year Etons and Harrows. Nor do they flock from every corner of the globe: we welcome a good number of international students, but our intake is overwhelmingly local, poor, state-educated and working-class. Our intake is noticeably more welcoming to ethnic minorities too: Oxford has a rather unfortunate habit of preferring white students to black ones with equal grades, and you'll rarely hear a northern accent or female voice either, and that applies to the staff too. Quite a lot of fee-paying schools send more kids to Oxford than entire northern cities.
So when I hear a senior so-called academic assert that his institution is 'superior' because its students have 'better outcomes', I put on my biggest boot. How does he define a 'better outcome'? His university selects those students with the highest achievements at A-level and equivalent, largely from white, economically secure backgrounds, showers them with cash and other support, and they come out with degrees. My university admits students from a much more diverse background. Many have poor or no qualifications. Most of them have family commitments and have to work for a living while studying. They are motivated and we motivate them further.
Once in, we push them. We expect as much dedication from them as my Oxford colleague. Our curriculae may be different but it's no less intensive or cutting edge. We offer a wide range of degrees and other qualifications and draw on the latest research, some of which we conduct. While we taught the latest in post-structural literary criticism and tinkered with computers, Oxford was condemning Derrida and chasing imaginary ducks with flaming torches.
Like all university departments, we have external examiners who certify that our degrees are as good as anyone else's. Otherwise we'd get closed down. As the latest report on my subject states, our first-class students are as good as those at the examiner's own (Russell Group) university. My university lacks the cash to provide tutorials of 1-3 people, ancient manuscripts, subsidised foreign travel, trout for lunch (true) and an art collection for the student residences, and yet our students achieve, and achieve well: many of them sail into postgraduate study in 'prestigious' universities and thrive.
If Oxford's Vice-Chancellor is so confident that his place is superior and mine inferior, I challenge him. Let him take a semester teaching here, and I'll take one at his gaff. If he's so great, he'll be fine and my students will suddenly blossom. If not, he might have to accept that it's a damn sight easier to pre-select your students and then claim success than it is to struggle against the social forces which oppress my intake. And let's not forget that even amongst the Oxford students, those from state schools achieve better degrees than the 50% drawn from the 5% of students educated at fee-paying schools. Is it really that challenging to turn AAA(often AAAA) students into 1 and 2.1 graduates, compared with an institution like mine in which EE students achieve comparable grades?
I admire many of my Oxford colleagues and respect the achievements of my friends who graduated from that university, but we really have to challenge this kind of rubbish. When a VC explicitly sees his institution's role as 'competing' in some global race, I wonder what on earth he thinks his university is for, and whom it serves. My university serves its community. When he speaks like this, he makes it sound like his serves only itself and a narrow class of moneyed global elitists. I know this isn't true, but interventions like his are divisive and selfish. My university arguably needs the money more than his. We don't own land. Our students aren't rich. We're understaffed. Think what we could do with 10% of the cash Oxford rakes in annually in farm rents and gifts.
If Oxford University demonstrably recruited on a background-blind, needs-blind, race-blind basis, taking students from any area of the country on the understanding that the courses and methods it provides are ideal for those particular students, I wouldn't have a leg to stand on. But it doesn't. It recruits largely (not entirely) from a privileged elite and then cheers when those students achieve good degrees. Where's the 'added value' in that?
When Andrew Hamilton attempts to cut his institution loose from the likes of us, and this country, he damages not only the rest of us but Oxford University too, by making it look complacent, greedy and disconnected. It shouldn't be a finishing school for intensively-coached rich kids, and I'm sure it isn't really, but that's the impression given.
Now you'll have to excuse me: I have to finish an inferior lecture on pre-Shakespearian theatre practice for my inferior students at my inferior university.