I have been reading a number of things about higher education in the UK recently – which stands to reason as a result of recent changes in fee structures and the like. And, of course, as a result of the creation of NCHum, set up by AC Grayling n’ chums (sorry), and due to open in Bloomsbury in 2012.
I think this blog is about some of the fuzzy logic that seems to exist – for me – when discussing these issues.
Let’s start with Owen Jones’ posting on LabourList.org about how Oxbridge should be abolished.
Oxbridge is well known as a preserve of people whose parents are from wealthy backgrounds and who will more than likely end up wealthy themselves. In spite of the university’s efforts, the (lack of) diversity in the student body is not particularly changing, says Jones, in part because rich kids can prepare more easily for the entrance interview as a result of the fact that they are rich.
I would be disappointed if any school did not offer help to students in preparing for university – or any – interviews – and I don’t see how money makes that much difference. Except, perhaps, that one can buy ‘better’ preparation…?
There are no stats on this, so forgive my speculation, but I suspect that more people ‘waste’ their money on pursuing such expensive preparation by not getting in to Oxbridge than there are state school students with supposedly no preparation who apply and are accepted. To be substantiated, of course – but the point is to query precisely what role money might play in this process.
Jones points out that he met thickos when he was studying at Oxford – and that he’s met smart people outside of Oxford. Aside from the fact that neither of these things should surprise Jones at all – if, that is, he wishes to retain the habit of imposing judgments on people according to what he perceives their abilities to be – this only suggests that Jones suffers from the Oxbridge graduate’s snobbish sense that it is almost impossible for non-Oxbridge people to be smart.
And yet Jones also writes this:
“Many bright young people from comprehensives simply do not want to go to Oxbridge, because they don’t want to spend their university years stuck with those they fear will be arrogant, braying, overprivileged youngsters who may as well have grown up on a different planet. That might be unfair, but that’s certainly how many feel.”
Whether or not the above conceptions of Oxbridge actually are unfair in terms of what Oxford is like, this paragraph does further mystify the point of Jones’ article. He seems to be reprimanding Oxbridge for not attracting (exceptional) students (from ‘normal’ backgrounds), while pointing out that such students/would-be students don’t want to go there.
Concentrating on the first half of this equation, then, Jones seems to be saying that it is a pity for people from ‘normal’ backgrounds not to be going to Oxbridge. That is, despite wanting to abolish Oxbridge, there is a deep-seated belief in the article about Oxbridge’s superiority over other universities (in the UK). That is, Oxbridge here does offer something exceptional to which a more diverse body of students should apparently have access, but they don’t – so Oxbridge should be abolished.
And yet, if many bright students actively do not want to go to Oxbridge, but instead go to other universities, then presumably these other institutions get a fair share of brightness. That is, if brightness is spread democratically throughout the British or any population, then it is not necessarily the brightness of the students at Oxbridge that makes it exceptional.
In this respect, one should not care what university one goes to – or even if one goes to university at all. Smart people are smart people and that is all there is to it. Or rather, everyone is smart in their own way. One does not need Oxbridge to validate this, and it is not unfair if Oxbridge does not validate this.
Jones, however, seems to suggest that everyone who does not make it to Oxbridge somehow seems to have missed out. And yet, whenever I step out on to the street and I see people wearing hoodies, shirts, and all sorts of other garments that speak of their alma mater, I see a huge range of institutions walking around the streets of London and elsewhere. That is, students seem proud of their alma mater no matter who she is. Not everyone is walking around thinking that they ought to be wearing Oxford or Cambridge stash. So perhaps Jones might refrain from his Oxbridge-centrism in believing that there are only two universities in the UK.
I do have some sympathy for Jones’ argument, but that sympathy must be based on the perceived fact that Oxbridge does offer something different to other universities, a difference that can also at times be perceived as ‘better.’
Not going to Oxbridge does not prevent people from succeeding. Not going to university, in fact, does not prevent people from succeeding – no matter how we define success, even if the prime measure of success tends to be financial.
However, given Jones’ mention of the history of Oxbridge and its record of producing British and world leaders in all domains of existence, then it is hard to deny that something different is there.
What is this difference?
Oxbridge students work notoriously ‘harder’ than students at many other institutions. For example, they must produce the amount of work in a fortnight that many other students have to produce in a semester. I therefore suspect that Oxbridge encourages not just time for reflection, which can often be offered as a justification for university tout court, but it also enforces hard work, pure and simple. Not an aptitude, but the acquired habit of hard work, then, might be a measure of this supposed difference.
There are issues to explore here about what ‘hard work’ means, though. Producing more work does not necessarily mean producing better work, even if practicing the ‘art’ of essay writing and other forms of assessment almost certainly does lead to improvements in quality. Practice, then, is key.
However, spending longer on fewer essays is also a form of practice – a form of making good that which one has time to make good, rather than rushing off essays at a rate of two per week (or whatever it may be). In this sense, I genuinely believe that all universities encourage (if not so much enforce) their students to work hard. This, then, is not for me the ‘difference.’
Oxbridge typically has students attend lectures, seminars and tutorials. These latter can in particular see students work in ‘groups’ of as few as one person with one tutor. This kind of personal attention might also set Oxbridge apart from many other institutions.
However, I am inclined not to believe this. This is not because students do not benefit from one-with-one tutorials. I think that they do – although I also think that students can benefit in different ways from group sessions in which they exchange ideas amongst each other.
I believe that this does not make Oxbridge that different, however, because many universities in fact offer – at least to those who ask for them (and many do) – one-with-one sessions for their students. Staff members feel hard pushed to decline calls for private tutorial sessions because they know that the student is paying. So in some senses this is something that other universities offer.
(Note that I am guarded here: ‘in some senses’ is supposed to suggest that there are at least more similarities between Oxbridge and other institutions than there are differences.)
So, if Oxbridge graduates dominate the halls of power within the UK and further afield, in a manner far more significant than any other university or set of universities in this country, then what leads to this is again something else.
At a wedding (in Oxfordshire) this weekend, I was ushering vehicles to the official car park with a friend when one of the guests drove past. My friend knew this person (I did not), and he told me that the guest had performed poorly in his A Levels (two Ns) – the reason this came up being that it was way back at school that my friend had last seen this person.
The poor A Level results had (resits taken for granted) not prevented this wedding guest from turning up in a relatively new BMW that almost certainly will remain beyond my means for many years to come.
This is anecdotal evidence at best, but obviously being the kind of person that Owen Jones would probably find a bit dim had not prevented this human being from going on to make – or at least give the appearance of making – a decent living. (And being able to appear well off requires a fair amount of money in and of itself.)
Talking later on to this person, however, it became apparent that he was what many people would call posh.
I have recently felt at times that I have made a grave mistake in going into higher education as a career. I have friends – not least the other usher with whom I was directing cars to the wedding car park – who have made swathes of cash that will to a high degree of probability elude me until I breathe no more.
Since I am in a society that measures success so emphatically by wealth, it is hard not to be affected by its logic – and in this sense, I fear that I should have made money as a lawyer or a management consultant – because I simply cannot keep up now with the high-spending lifestyles of many of my friends, who become non-friends because I cannot afford to see them as regularly as I would want to.
The reason that I have introduced this aside about money is that the wedding guest was – according to available reports – not academically that sharp, but he was – from the evidence presented to me – from a relatively wealthy background.
The reason for this bracketing aside about the wedding, then, is to say that what sets Oxbridge aside is not strictly its structure of education, because I have argued that its structure of education is not necessarily that unique, and therefore not that different from many other institutions.
Without going to Oxbridge, this wedding guest has (I am arguing here) made lots of money. What he has in common with many successful Oxbridge graduates, then, is a wealthy background.
Brains help you to make money. But brains are not necessary for making money. What best helps people to make money is having it in the first place. It is not that Oxbridge students are particularly more clever or particularly better prepared for the ‘real’ world, then. Or this is what I am arguing here. What many Oxbridge students have, though, is a wealthy background.
Abolishing Oxbridge will not change a system in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Oxbridge could offer more scholarships to more students from poorer backgrounds. Some would no doubt benefit from this by being ‘better off’ in later life – but mainly because of the connections they will have made or can make with those who are already from wealthy backgrounds.
This kind of ‘exceptionalism’ (by which I mean that those students who follow this route would be ‘exceptional’ people, and therefore already divorced from the ‘unexceptional’ rest) does not help to change a system that is inherently conservative, in that money is what you need to make money and to gain access to the corridors of power.
But this system of wealth breeding wealth would continue unabaited whether Oxbridge existed or not. Oxbridge is simply a symbol, then, of one’s pre-existing socio-economic status. If you want to be a part of the wealthy classes, then why not try to get in at the university level and go to Oxbridge?
However, while Oxbridge might help (as might many, if not any, other university degree), being from a ‘lower’ socio-economic background will be the main hindrance from achieving wealth. Perhaps many Oxbridge graduates make more money than they might have without their degree, but the real issue at stake is that those who already have power are the ones who gain/retain power.
Exceptionalism does not redistribute power; it simply confirms its being confined to certain spheres (those who already have it); there might be slight changes in the personnel in possession of power, but power is still the jealously guarded preserve of the few. Given that brains are evenly distributed – as proposed earlier – power and brains do not correlate to each other, nor even link up causally.
I’d like to explore one more aspect of our system of conservatism. The truth of wealth breeding wealth is systematically hidden from our population – not least because of its enormous emphasis on exceptionalism, which gives the illusion that everyone stands an ‘equal’ chance of gaining access to it.
Given the lack of encouragement to make this realisation (that power is not distributed evenly), it is not surprising that many youngsters – or even older people – do not win much power. In fact, we are systematically encouraged to accept everything as it is now.
Unsurprisingly, then, kids of 18 years of age do not necessarily know that there is a game of power, nor even how they will play it. Without knowing that they are being played, then, many continue through life – perhaps until expiry – without ever realising that they were supporting the increasing grip on power by those who had it already. The majority of people are not empowered – and a major part of their disempowerment is not even realising it.
The above is not to say that, after Jones, everyone should apply to Oxbridge; one cannot burden two, or even 150, higher education institutions with the task of redistributing power.
Nor is the above to say that abolishing Oxbridge will redress this (im)balance of power.
Oxbridge, or rather various of its alumni like Jones, should stop wringing their hands with the higher educational equivalent of white man’s burden, whereby only Oxbridge can save higher education and if it cannot then higher education as a whole should be damned.
Students wear their university brand and love their alma mater whoever she may be – and they are correct to do this. It shows that people care about their higher education and what it can offer, and those few people who believe that you are no one if you weren’t at Oxbridge can go forth and multiply.
All universities (as I shall argue in the next part of this blog) are by and large equal. What university you go to, or that you go to university at all, is not going to make or break you – even if all university experiences tend to be immensely formative for those who undertake them.
What makes and breaks you is how much you have already. Oxford University hoodies and t-shirts are sold all over London and further afield – while stash from my current employer does not feature too highly in the tourist shops around town. This stash is bought by tourists not because of the brains they have or do not have, but because of the aspirations to power that such a label implies. It is a show of money, be it real or proclaimed, as much as a BMW is.
All of these ‘fake’ Oxbridge graduates who wear the t-shirt but never actually attended the universities reveal a truth, then, about the universities themselves: they are a brand, a spectacle of power, that helps to convince other people that more power should be given to those who already (seem to) have it.
Don’t get me wrong; this is a complex issue, the full complexity of which I have not got to grips with here. But if Oxbridge is the icon, then the real deity is power itself. Closing Oxbridge would not change anything; power would simply rebrand and perhaps relocate. Convincing the world that this power is there for the taking, that it can be distributed evenly, perhaps, with or without Oxbridge’s existence, is the real task of higher education.