The Oxford University 'Congregation', the University's sovereign body which includes all permanent academic faculty, met in the Sheldonian theatre on 8 February to debate whether it should raise student fees in the context of a fierce wider debates. Some students were allowed to take part while others demonstrated outside. This is the second in the series of contributions OurKingdom is publishing. Yesterday Stuart White, tomorrow John Parrington.
I’d like to begin by saying that I hope that, in future, any student wishing to speak will be allowed to do so, as is the case in Cambridge.
The topic set by Council for discussion today is “undergraduate funding and support (including the level of the undergraduate fee)”. This is embarrassingly narrow.
Were we to say nothing about the grotesque and poisonous vision of education as a means to maximize earnings that is contained in the Browne Report? A report, written, it cannot be said too often, by a former CEO of an oil company that preferred to cut safety measures on oil-rigs rather than reduce company profit and is thereby responsible for the world’s most serious ecological disaster? A serious educational disaster is looming out there, and Council suggests we debate how best to facilitate it?
The University of Oxford – we, all students included – should be using our considerable intellectual resources and energies, along with the media attention we invariably attract, to formulate and publicize a robust and compelling case for the continued public funding of universities.
It is not unaffordable; this country is richer than it has ever been, and that’s true even in the recession. We must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the real possibility of free higher education for all; after all, it is available not so very far from here: in Scotland, in France.
And it is only by continuing to fund the universities publicly that they can continue to rival their counterparts in the US, not by subjecting them to market forces, nor by turning students into customers, teachers into service providers, and researchers into product developers. The Universities are already no longer in the Department for Education but for Business, Innovation and Skills; would we accept it if the NHS was transferred to the Department for Fitness, Reproduction and Pills?
Moreover, this government wants to make Oxford revisit Brideshead Revisited.
We have come a long way since then: there are women.
But there are still not very many students (indeed I have few colleagues) who were, like me, comprehensively educated; there are few non-whites, few who were in receipt of free school meals or of the much regretted but not forgotten EMA.
It is because of this that Oxford is always compromised in its ability to adopt a robust and non-defensive position in national debates about education – the most recent issue of the Oxford Magazine referred to “the often embarrassing theme of elitism”.
And it is embarrassing, not because we are unable to defend academic elitism, but because the elitism we too, too often represent is not academic but socio-economic. If we’re going to become a university that can honestly say it selects on academic merit alone, we cannot remain silent about socio-economic inequalities.
The Oxford Magazine also said: “given the educational system in the UK, it is […] a fact of life that Oxford will end up admitting a disproportionately high intake from independent schools”. Such resignation – ‘given’, ‘fact of life’, ‘end up admitting’ – is simply no good.
We must also propose a different educational system. The current one, with its private education for less than 10% who, on so-called ‘academic’ merit, occupy up to 50% of university places, is only a “given” or a “fact of life” in the way apartheid was.
And Simon Hughes’s supposedly radical idea of quotas will not do; it dresses the window while leaving the background discriminatory structures in place.
Oxford must formulate a response to the cuts in public funding that is unembarrassed and un-embarrassing. Our ability to command respect as an institution with intellectual and moral integrity will depend far less on our student funding packages and access schemes than on a stubborn refusal to be silent about and thus complicit with the gross inequalities this institution still reflects in spite of those schemes. Indeed we should allow ourselves to wonder about the extent to which access schemes and the annual heart-warming success story they provide do not also function to divert attention away from the causes of those inequalities, which ought also to be our target.
I am loath to use the word, but they said they wanted ‘impact’; let’s really give it to them.
Kate Tunstall is a University Lecturer in French, Fellow of Worcester, and part of the Oxford Education Campaign and Oxford's Free University