It all goes back to 4.30 a.m. yesterday, when I got up to go to a recording at my university of BBC Radio 4's alleged flagship news show, Today. 24 hours later, having got the date wrong and endured a day's mockery from my dear colleagues, I tried again.
As part of the show, Mishal Husain (whose journalism and presenting style I rather admire) interviewed the boss. Rather than explore the HE landscape, the university's role in a hard-hit city or the decade of wage suppression that everyone in HE except its leaders have endured, Husain (private school, Cambridge) decided to ask whether places like mine were essentially running a pyramid scheme by accepting money from students with poor A-level qualifications who were bound to fail. The VC then had about a minute and a half to unpick the assumptions and errors implicit in the question, and did a great job. I've had a couple of hours more and don't feel constrained to be so polite about it.
There are many hot takes on the bin-fire that is British higher education, but this was a new one. Given the elite universities' notorious failure to admit poor, provincial, working-class and especially minority ethnic students (at all, in the case of certain colleges), it's a brave move to accuse an institution with a 40% BME, 90% working-class intake of being the enemy of progress.
A quarter of Oxford colleges didn’t admit a single black student in at least one year between 2015 and 2017
Eight of the 29 colleges at Oxford admitted two or fewer black students between 2015 and 2017 (less than 1% of all UK students admitted to the college). This means that in at least one year those colleges can’t have admitted any black students. We don’t know what happened in each of the individual years between 2015 and 2017, so it’s possible there were more colleges who didn’t admit any black students in any given year.
The interesting question would be why and how underfunded, unfashionable places like mine are expected to repair the damage caused by structural and systematic racism and economic injustice. Instead Husain's question implied a direct, uncomplicated link between individual effort and academic success. My students come from multiply-deprived families, communities and locations. They have been failed by an compulsory education system that has never done well with ethnic minorities and has been privatised to such an extent that pernicious activities like 'off-rolling' drive a league-table culture at the expense of students. A-levels are a snapshot of achievement with their own problems (in my subject, the direct result of Gove's move towards a mechanical, boring curriculum has been a collapse in English Literature applicants) which to a large extent reflect privilege rather than potential, something a rigid qualifications-based HE entrance system largely fails to acknowledge. My colleagues at selective universities largely aren't racists excluding anyone they think smells of chip-fat: that's not how structural inequality perpetuates itself. Unequal access to HE is the end-product of a rotten system, not an individual failing.
Presumably Mishal Husain believes that attending a fee-paying school had no bearing on her own academic success and entrance to Cambridge: if so, her parents should ask for their money back. In the meantime, I'll stick to spotting the talent other institutions overlook. Also: state-educated students tend to do better at university – they haven't been educated beyond their natural abilities as many private school kids have been, and they're more independent.
Teaching mostly first-generation HE students is both a joy and a challenge. There are issues of cultural capital and actual capital, but they have usually seen more of life than their peers, and can be more driven. That's why so many of us choose to teach in places like mine (not me: I lucked into this and lightning doesn't strike twice) – we don't have a white saviour/missionary mentality but we see the difference we make and we don't have to cope with the entitlement of those who take education for granted.
Someone on Twitter described Husain's question as the product of a 'stay in your lane' mentality, and I'm sorry to say that I agree. The ruling class clearly believes that higher education should be reserved for the affluent middle and upper classes. The Morlocks should accept their roles in the service economy and take enough vocational training to work in an Amazon warehouse. I hate this. I've seen too many brilliant students who should be running companies, publishing novels, lobotomising government ministers or presenting BBC current affairs shows get dumped by the wayside for being too black, provincial, common or badly-networked. If History of Art is or Medicine is open to a cabinet minister's offspring (acknowledged or not), it should be good enough for my neighbours' kids. If teaching Anne of Green Gables, Welsh literature, politicians' novels (my current research project) Jilly Cooper's Riders, American Psycho, The Book of Mormon and Hamlet (to select a few of my recent classes) goes some little way to tipping the scales back in the right direction, I'm happy.*
Anyway, that's the rant you get when I'm forced out of bed at 4.30 a.m. I'll go back to book-blogging and random nonsense again next time.
*Happiysh: I still want paying properly.