Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Andrew Hamilton deserves a booting

In a long-ago episode of The Simpsons, Bart insulted the people of Australia by mooning them from the safety of the American Embassy (Bart vs Australia) and those simple people decided that the only way to exact justice was to inflict a 'booting'.

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.


Anonymous said...

absolutely bloody brilliant from @patmorton

M-H said...

'Ear ear! Bloody well said sir!

SImon Wood said...

Superb post.

Although I'm against bootings in general, I sincerely hope he takes up your challenge of a semester at your gaff so we can see precisely how superior he is.

Steven Gray said...

Agree completely. What an idiot.

On the other side, not all Oxford people are this blind. When applying for Oxford for my PhD, I spoke to a very senior academic (no naming) who was very impressed with someone from Swansea applying to go there. In fact, he pointed out that he was always impressed by those who pushed themselves at other universities without the cash, small tutorials etc that Oxbridge folk get.

In my somewhat limited experience no-one in academia has ever doubted the worth of my degree because I went to Swansea. Unfortunately they put a man who does in charge....

Prof RMT said...

Beautifully put. Nothing inferior there.

marykmac said...

HURRAAAAYY!!! Well said, sir or madam.

Isn't it astonishing that academics, who ought to be the most rigorously trained critical thinkers in the countries, fall so frequently into this lazy assumption of "better outcomes" (defined, always,a long precisely those lines which we know are heavily influenced by social factors) being caused by "better education"? There is no methodology which can comprehensively demonstrate that the "better outcomes" achieved by Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates occur independently of their greater social capital and educational achievement on entering university, or their exposure to other similarly advantaged students whilst at university (and there is work by people such as Bill Law showing how much peer group norms determine career aspirations and achievement). And yet the assumption that a degree from a "better" university is somehow qualitatively "better" remains.

It's brilliant working in a non-elite university - I left a fixed-term contract at a University Alliance institution five mons ago to work with a much more homogenous group, and I miss it like mad. I really hope I make it back to a similar organisation at some point in the next couple of years.

Anonymous said...

I sympathise with your overall argument, the Oxford VC's comments rightly deserves your wrath and should be highlighted for what it is. However, I think you need to sharpen your critique of Oxford's recruitment policy. No doubt, it is subject to social prejudices, but I think you make it sound more intentional than it probably is when you say at one point, "Oxford has a rather unfortunate habit of preferring white students to black ones with equal grades". Might this simply not be due to the fact that A-level grades can no longer be used to distinguish between candidates. If all the candidates who got 3As were admitted to Oxford, they would quickly run out places on their courses. They have to select somehow, so they probably look for softer things like critical thinking, which are perhaps more subject to social advantages.

Anonymous said...

While I take your point(s) and have very little to disagree with, one thing you have got 'bass-ackwards'... Oxford University itself is not rich and is not collecting rents (though gifts are welcome!)... it's the colleges that own all the land and have the big endowments. The university existed for over 200 years before building even one building... and then they had to raise money to purchase the land from... Balliol College. Just fyi :-) otherwise all good.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thank you ALL for your comments. I'm tempted to go back and re-write the whole thing because I've learned more facts and picked up different ways of thinking about this from you all.

I would like to make it clear that I don't resent or envy my Oxford colleagues and their students: I suspect many of them are horrified by their VC's perspective, as Steven Gray's account demonstrates. I simply want my disadvantaged students to share the resources afforded to their Oxford equivalents.

On the last two points from anonymous contributors, I accept that my fairly polemical approach needs some refining, but I don't think it's enough to say that the need for further differentiation between students is reason enough for the bias against black students. I'd be tempted to operate a lottery once certain admission requirements are filled. Otherwise, the university is saying that it can only advance the education of people who already conform, which doesn't impress me much.

I also take the point about the University/College split - it's not something I know much about.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, the Vice Chancellor's speech nowhere contains the word "inferior" (or, I think, any suggestion of it).

What he does say is that:
"What matters surely is that an institution’s charges are clearly aligned with what it offers and that they are demonstrably not a barrier to student access.

The Plashing Vole said...

I wondered about the word 'inferior', and assumed (wrongly it seems) that the Guardian wouldn't introduce such a stark term unless it was what he said or strongly implied. He may have implied it, of course.

I don't see how £16k won't be a barrier for access for all but the richest and most confident.

Anonymous said...

You can read the full transcript of his speech on the Oxford website. http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_releases_for_journalists/101008_1.html Notably (unreported), Increasing Diversity at Oxford is one of the three topics discussed.

Personally, I don't think he implies it. The closest he comes to a quote which could be said to imply that is:
"What matters surely is that an institution’s charges are clearly aligned with what it offers and that they are demonstrably not a barrier to student access."

Uncharitably, one could *assume* that he means what quality it offers, (regardless of cost), but I think it's clear from the rest of his speech that he means in terms of the cost of what is offered. His real concern is "the real cost of an Oxford education is at least £16,000 per undergraduate every year... That represents a funding shortfall of more than £7,000 a year per student."

I think we should separate out the questions of i) whether Andrew Hamilton is making this (ridiculous) argument, ii) whether raising fees would be bad for access.

I completely agree that higher tuition fees are disastrous. That said: they're disastrous because of their symbolic effect (less advantaged students being shown to be more debt averse etc.). In actual material terms, Oxford's bursaries/fee waivers etc. mean that less advantaged students would both be relatively well off compared to other universities.