November is the season of revolution, when mists and mellow fruitfulness give way to barricades and the smell of burning rubber (as my friend Ben once memorably wrote), but it’s also the time when the annual university admissions season is once more upon us. A pile of UCAS forms will shortly be arriving in my pigeonhole for applicants for the PPE and Modern History and Politics degrees here at Magdalen, and quite soon we’ll have the usual battery of articles in the Telegraph and the Spectator insisting that the universities are discriminating against the best candidates from the independent schools and from the Guardian and the New Statesman suggesting it’s the other way around. And this all raises a lot of highly-politicised things to talk about, most of them probably highly inappropriate for discussion on a blog as frivolous as this one likes to be.
Here, in any case, is a slightly-edited-for length-extract from Stefan Collini‘s excellent essay on the Government White Paper on the Future of Higher Education from the current edition of the London Review of Books, when he turns to the fraught question of “access”:
To restore a little sanity to this issue, let’s begin with the following, rather striking fact. In Britain, entrance to a university is almost the only widely desired social good that cannot be straightforwardly bought. Money can buy you a better house than other people; money can buy you better health care; money can even buy you a better school education for your children. Our society apparently feels no shame about any of this: advertisements in the national media spell out in the starkest terms the advantages your child will get, including improved exam results, if you can afford the high school fees. But money cannot directly buy a better university place for your child, or indeed a place at all… Of course, as in any strongly class-divided society, advantages are self-perpetuating: statistically, children of the wealthy stand a much better chance of going to university than do children of the poor (children of the well-educated stand a better chance still). But the facts are the very reverse of the picture painted by silly-season newspaper headlines: money can buy you pretty much everything except love and university entrance. The question of access therefore needs to start from somewhere else. It is absurd to think that universities can unilaterally correct for the effects of a class-divided society. Of course the figures showing how much greater are the chances of children of the professional classes going to university than children of manual workers reveal a scandalous situation. But the scandal is not about university admissions: it is about the effect of social class in determining life-chances; the corresponding figures about, say, mortality are a much worse scandal.
As with so many other matters in contemporary public debate, serious thinking about class has been displaced by shallow sloganeering about elitism. Anything which smacks of favouring what were the contingent accoutrements of the dominant class in an earlier period is ‘outmoded’, ‘archaic’, ‘elitist’ (the stories are usually accompanied by Bridesheady images of supposed Oxbridge types in dinner jackets and punts). The outrage is that a working-class girl from, say, Essex or Tyneside is being ‘dissed’. Clubby upper-class men are cloning themselves, admitting chaps who ‘fit in’, and so on. It goes without saying that the judgments of university admissions tutors are fallible, but as an account of systematic bias currently at work in the process this fantasy doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny… For the most part university teachers have a much more informed interest in the intellectual ‘potential’ of those whom they are to teach than do the mouthy hordes of journalists and politicians over-quick to scent scandal. … The willingness of leading members of the Government to sound off about the shameful elitism they insist must have informed these judgments only shows how quick they are to attack what they think will be soft targets with populist appeal. This is the other face of ‘modernisation’: we need to sweep away ‘privilege’ in the form of the trappings of status, but we allow the market to entrench the real differentials of class more deeply than ever.
Fire away in the comments section if there’s any opinion on this subject you’d like to share.