Oxford debates higher education VI: What's happening is not inevitable

Rowan Tomlinson
16 February 2011

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 debate. Some students were allowed to take part while others demonstrated outside. This is the final post in our  series, where we hear from Rowan Tomlinson and Rebecca Sparrow. We thank Stuart White,  Kate TunstallJohn ParringtonDavid Barclay and Bernard Sufrin for their contributions. 

Rowan Tomlinson

My focus today is a key term of the Browne review. Not the horribly redefined ‘value’, robbed of all its value by absorption into a rhetoric of the market, but the apparently more innocent, positive term ‘access’. In the section entitled, ‘How would it benefit me?’, the Review reassures prospective students that its proposals will mean ‘no barriers to access’. It takes some gall to declare this in a document that justifies a tripling in fees as a solution to its decimation of HE funding.

The government claims to cherish social mobility. But few of us could doubt that raising fees so much will do anything but damage social mobility. Those from lower socio-economic groups are traditionally, logically, debt-averse, and the deferred gratification of a degree is something that one needs to be confident – socially, financially, in terms of life prospects – in order to contemplate, let alone take on. Moreover, it’s a fact that social mobility that’s meaningful and widespread can’t be achieved through the provision of a limited number of bursaries. The government’s enthusiastic promotion of apprenticeships reads, meanwhile, as a tacit admission that university is for certain types of people, from certain social backgrounds. Cameron and Clegg are not, I’d bet, envisaging that their own children will be donning overalls. It’s ok, it seems, for a working-class kid to be a plumber or an electrician but don’t dream of being a scientist, philosopher, artist, engineer, or writer.

I don’t – as I’ve been encouraged to do so by the narrow framing of the discussion – wish to consider how to implement tokenistic mechanisms to ease the new regime (and the political connotations there are intended). I want to remind us of what our guilt-tinged obsession with access actually says about equality in higher education and by so doing urge us to think bigger and act more boldly. After all, amidst all this talk of access, the ever-present yet ever-neglected fact is that the very term is predicated on a gross inequality: namely, that there’s still a barrier between top universities and students who attend standard, non-selective state schools, be these FE colleges, or the much-maligned comprehensive, whose model of socially and academically inclusive education – as a former comp student myself – I strongly defend. We’ve all absorbed this term ‘access’ and use it transparently. But isn’t there something wrong when a word that suggests a barrier to be crossed is used to talk about the school origin of over 90 per cent of the population? What is more, the state-school percentage of which some of us seem (bafflingly) proud is deceptive. We need to stop hoodwinking ourselves and others and admit publicly that many of those who make up the intake from state schools are from selective schools, which operate not through some kind of pure academic meritocracy but through social and cultural exclusion and elitism. Or, if they are from non-selective schools, they tend to be from a particular, happy few, those fed by atypical constituencies, or which have longstanding relationships with Oxford. Or else, they’re students who attend comps but who do so armed with the cultural capital – and subsequent confidence and sense of entitlement – that one gets from being the child of a university-educated professional.

But we’re already doing a lot for access, I hear you say, 1.8 million-pounds-worth. Look at the many schemes, look at Uniq, look at the Young Ambassadors. Heavily involved in these activities myself, I’ve witnessed first-hand the passion of those working for access, though I’ve also heard talk recently of concerns about the ‘conversion rate’, an anticipation of the kinds of quantitative assessment the government wants to impose. This is both undesirable and unworkable. Since how can we measure inspiration, boosting motivation, changing horizons? This simply isn’t quantitative, just as the value of a degree – which Browne wants to compute – resists measurement.

A second response, defence, easy way out, is to say that we come too late, can do too little, that the roots of out-performance by those from selective schools lie far back in inequalities of early childhood, that it’s a regrettable fact of life, but a fact nonetheless, that in wanting to recruit the brightest students, we end up admitting more from fee-paying and selective schools.

I reject this counsel of despair and contend that, as gateholders for the precious Oxford education, we can and must do something to dismantle divisions entrenched by earlier inequalities, divisions which selective schools – fee paying or maintained – endorse and solidify. If we’re to salvage anything from this attack on education, then let’s make access meaningful by being honest about inequalities in education and reflecting this in our policies: let’s stop judging with blunt instruments of grading, when we all know that an A* can be bought, let’s have differential offers, explicit use of contextual data so that exam attainment is judged against school background, supported entry routes, intensive pre-sessional courses, foundation years. Our access work to date has been laudable. And we must certainly fight the temptation to jump through OFFA’s hoops and, bowing to targets, bus kids in to mass open days, or else to concentrate our efforts on 17 year olds when access work has more – though less immediate – value the earlier we start. But I urge you too to consider that the time is right to move away from tokenism and to take much more radical steps. By so doing, I believe we can use our privileged position as a top university to attenuate the devastating impact of what clearly amount to ideological attacks by the current government on the public sector.

Dr Rowan Tomlinson is a Fellow and Tutor in French, New College, Oxford

Rebecca Sparrow

I have a simple point to make. We can't talk about all this as if it's inevitable, and it's actually been a really wonderful surprise coming here and realising how many people haven't been doing that. Discussing fees and access is like saying we accept that the cuts, which affect both your research and our tuition fees, are going to happen.

Simply not true.

All over the country people are finding ways to stand up to these cuts. Oxford has a responsibility not to be pressured by impending deadlines into promising to make a virtually irreversible change, long before anything is actually put in place, and before it's attempted to stop it happening, as if the battle has already been lost. We've heard enough warnings today about what will happen within universities, and society, if we do.

People and universities all over the country look to Oxford and its members as acting as part of a leading academic institution. These members' reaction to what the government is trying to impose is more likely than most to have an impact on policy. Oxford's involvement in the national campaign will immeasurably add to the power of everyone standing up against the cuts.

But importantly, this university is also special because academics here have a sovereign right over the administration, in the power to call a vote in Congregation. Like other workers, you also have the right, and the power, to strike. And students will support you in that. We, as members of this university, students and staff together, have a responsibility to education in this country to object, from the root, to what is threatening it. And we have the power to do so. Let's, before it's too late.

Rebecca Sparrow is an Oxford Education Campaign member and undergraduate at Wadham College

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