Universities and the Reproduction of Inequalityby Diane Reay
When the Browne Report was published I was re-reading R.H. Tawney who in the 1930s was advocating an educational system ‘unimpeded by the vulgar irrelevancies of class and income’ (Tawney 1943: 117). A key part of his social democratic vision was a universal university education, which he justified on the basis that university education was just as important for those who remain working class all their lives as it was for the upper and middle classes (). Rather, a socially just educational system was one in which education is seen as an end in itself, a space that ‘people seek out not in order that they may become something else but because they are what they are’ (1964a: 78), rather than a means of getting ahead of others or of stealing a competitive edge.
There was none of the crude instrumentalizing of education, including university education, that is endemic today. Instead, Tawney put the case for a common school asserting that ‘the English educational system will never be one worthy of a civilised society until the children of all classes in the nation attend the same schools’ (1964a: 144), and, I would add, until they attend the same universities.
These were the words of a public school boy who went to Oxford, but then had the good fortune to mix with and learn from ordinary men and women when he became a Workers Educational Association tutor in the 1910s. It appears that the government of 2011, with eighteen public schoolboys among its ministers and a substantial majority who are Oxbridge educated, has not benefited from Tawney's experience of social mixing. And there is a great deal of evidence that the elite universities still provide very little opportunity for social mixing across divisions of class or race. Indeed, Will Hutton (2007) compares the middle- and upper-class monopoly of Oxbridge with the closed shop practices of the old print unions and dock workers. Key to this class monopoly is the private school system.
Over the early 2000s, the Sutton Trust found that a third of all admissions to Oxbridge came from 100 schools (3 per cent of the total), 78 of which were private (2008b). In particular, Eton, St Paul's, Westminster and Winchester did massively better than their actual exam results would predict (Hutton 2007). In contrast, more recent research (Sutton Trust 2010a) found that less than 1 per cent of state school students on free school meals gain a place. As a result, students from private schools are fifty-five times more likely to get a place at Oxbridge than state educated free school meal pupils (Vasager 2010a).
This high degree of selectivity is not just limited to Oxbridge, the Sutton Trust found that the thirteen universities that ranked the highest in an average of published university league tables had an equally narrow school intake. Of the 100 schools with the highest intake to these elite universities, eighty-three were private, sixteen were grammar schools and only one was a comprehensive. As Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, told the Conservative Party conference in 2010, more students attending Westminster gain places at elite universities than the entire cohort of young people on free school meals (Gove 2010).
This is an issue not only of social class, but of race and ethnicity too. Official data shows that over twenty Oxbridge colleges made no offer to black students in 2009 and that one Oxford college had not admitted a black student in five years (Vasager 2010b). David Lammy (2010) found that, in 2009, 292 black students achieved three A grades at A level and that 475 black students applied to Oxbridge. However, only a handful were admitted, including just one British black Caribbean student to Oxford. In contrast, recent research suggests that white privately educated students are being over-selected relative to their exam results. Power and Whitty (2008) found that students from the private schools got into Oxbridge with lower point scores than their state educated peers. The mean A-level point score total for the Oxbridge graduates from state schools in their study was thirty-five, while the comparable figure for the privately educated students was thirty-one. One privately educated student even managed to gain a place with only fourteen A-level points.
The consequences of privileging an elite, segregated, private school system is that we have an educational system that is unfit for purpose in a globalized multicultural twenty-first century. Public schools are antiquated and dated institutions. Over seventy years ago, Tawney wrote of them that they were ‘things of yesterday’. Their period of innovation was between the 1830s and the 1890s, since then they have simply consolidated and strengthened their primary function of reproducing our political and business elites. The private school system is impoverished by a vision that has no part to play in the twenty-first century, operating on the ethic, if it can be called such, of ‘to each according to his/her income and property’. The private schools tie the UK to a model of society in which life chances are determined by birth and wealth, and competition and individualism are valorized. It is here we find the original seedbed of neo-liberal individualism, but a neo-liberalism further degraded by snobbery, elitism and intellectual superiority.
In 1909, Norwood and Hope described the public schools as producing: ‘A race of well-bodied, well-mannered, well-meaning boys, keen at games, devoted to their schools, ignorant of life, contemptuous of all outside the pale of their own caste’ (1909: 187). Today, we have the Oxbridge ‘chav’ parties and the private school student Facebook groups that talk about ‘comprehensive school scum’. Both then and now there is ample evidence of the inability of many of the privately educated to mix on easy terms with any but small cliques. In the rest of this chapter I examine the underlying principles governing the Browne Report on fair access to higher education (and the government policies derived from it) before drawing on a range of voices both from my own research (Reay, David and Ball 2005; Reay, Crozier and James 2011) and the work of others to illustrate the consequences of the elitist educational policies we have inherited, and the ways in which they will be both sedimented and extended by the current reforms. I also consider the repercussions for the future of higher education.
The Browne Report: a triumph of money over mind
It is only through an understanding of insularity, class contempt and the sense of being more deserving that we can comprehend the recent Browne Report, an exemplar of the prioritizing of private gain over public good. Lord Browne, the first author of the report, is the former Chief Executive of BP, and was educated at the King's School and St John's College, Cambridge. Four of his six fellow panel members were also educated at Oxbridge. Together they have produced a document driven by economic imperatives – these are evident in the language of sustainability and investment. In the first paragraph a link is made between economic growth and a strong higher education sector, while a little later the report asserts that higher education matters because a) it drives innovation and economic transformation and b) it helps produce economic growth. Any wider vision beyond a narrow economic instrumentalism is difficult to find. Instead we are told: ‘Higher education is a major part of the economy, larger in size than the advertising industry and considerably larger than the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries. With an income of £23.4 billion a year it has been estimated as generating £59 billion of output’ (Browne Report 2010: 15).
Vision is only mentioned once and then in the restricted sense of not being about shoring up the present system but enabling the widest number of students to benefit from the pleasures and opportunities of learning (Browne Report 2010: 58). In contrast, the term economic is used thirteen times. The assumption is that what students want to get from participating in higher education is money (Fish 2010). Tawney could have been writing of Lord Browne and his report when he asserted that: ‘One of the besetting sins of those in high places in England is the bad utilitarianism which thinks that the object of education is not education but some external result, such as professional success or business leadership’ (1964a: 85).
The focus of the Browne Report is on higher education as a source of private profit rather than public good. How far we have moved through a process of the instrumentalizing of higher education is visible in the text as we glimpse the extent to which it is increasingly dictated by the views, attitudes and values of business. This instrumentalizing of higher education gathered momentum under New Labour with the movement of responsibility for higher education from the Department for Education to the Department for Business and Enterprise, but it has accelerated under the current Liberal–Conservative coalition government. As Simon Head (2011) cogently argues, scholarship in British universities is increasing under threat from theories and practices conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms.
The main corollary of positioning higher education as a private investment is that there is no notion, in either the report or the government response to it, of higher education as a public good. If we adhere to notions of academic freedom and the public university, as I do, then there clearly is a need for reform to change practices introduced by the previous government. However, I would argue that this would look little like the reforms being enacted by the coalition government.
The university league: from premier to third division
The Browne Report asserts that higher education has become more diverse. It overlooks the fact that with diversity has come a three-tier system with the elite universities at the top and Oxbridge at their pinnacle, the red bricks in the middle with the ‘post-1992’ universities (the old polytechnics) at the bottom. While the latter group is diverse both ethnically and in socioeconomic terms, the elite universities are only slightly more diverse than they were forty years ago (Guardian 2010a). Although the Browne Report references HEFCE research that shows that in the last five years there has been a significant and sustained increase in the participation rate of young people living in the most deprived areas, what it does not highlight is the very low percentage of these young people who attend the elite universities (for example, only 2.7 per cent in Oxford and 3.7 per cent in Cambridge) (Guardian 2010b).
Peter Wilby (2010) is right in asserting that the introduction of student fees has been associated with a sharp rise in university participation. The statistics show that in 2009, young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods were 50 per cent more likely to get university places than they had been fifteen years earlier, while those from advantaged areas were only 15 per cent more likely. However, what he fails to consider is exactly where those students go, and it is not to the elite universities. On the surface we appear to have a more inclusive higher education system, but the overall figures mask deep-seated divisions within that system, which are likely to be reinforced by the further increases in fees being proposed and by their differentiated character across universities.
The 2000s may have been the success story in widening access to university for working-class white and ethnic minority students, but that access has overwhelmingly been to the new universities. And just as many comprehensive schools were demonized as ‘bog-standard’ for having large cohorts of working-class students, so have the new universities. Rather, the ‘massification’ of the higher education sector (Trow 2006; Guri-Rosenblit 2007) has resulted in the reproduction of the UK school system's highly polarized and segregated hierarchy, with those new universities with sizeable cohorts of working-class students languishing at the bottom of the university league tables, while the Russell Group universities, with equally sizeable numbers of privately educated students, are at the pinnacle.
The problem of the private schools
Elitist attitudes to higher education run deep within British middle-class culture. Even those who defend the comprehensive principle in relation to schooling rarely seem to question the assumption that universities should be organized according to a rigid hierarchy. As Wilby recognizes, despite the laudable expansion of higher education over the last thirty years, entry to elite universities, ‘those that all but guarantee entry to sought-after careers, still carries the heaviest social bias’ (Wilby 2010). The result is a pernicious form of class apartheid that still exists despite the ‘massification’ of higher education (Trow 2006; Guri-Rosenblit 2007).
The overwhelming focus on the educational failings of those at the bottom has meant that the issue of upper-class elitism and social closure has been relatively neglected. Yet, if we focus on the upper classes their relationship to education has barely changed since the seventeenth century – it still remains a means of retaining social status. Education for the upper classes is an essential and necessary imposition, and the main mechanism of upper-class cultural reproduction is private schooling, notwithstanding David Cameron's regular references to his children's state schooling. The English upper classes go through a very different transition from being a child to becoming an adult to that normative among either the middle or the working classes, in which private schools are central to socialization. For the upper classes it is culturally normative, particularly for males, to be sent away from home to a rigidly disciplined, often harsh, schooling. In doing so, notions of a happy childhood in the bosom of the family are relinquished for the certainty of social reproduction. Roald Dahl described his own experience of public schooling in the 1930s as: ‘days of horrors, of fierce discipline, of not talking in the dormitories, no running in the corridors, no untidiness of any sort, no this or that or the other, just rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed. And the fear of the dreaded cane hung over us like the fear of death all the time’ (2001: 93).
When I interviewed one former public schoolboy, James, about his own experience 50 years earlier, there were still echoes of Dahl's dread, but also a vivid account of male upper class socialization. He said:
At seven I got sent away to a prep boarding school… that was bad enough, the sense of being exiled. I missed my family, my mother in particular, terribly. But you know that was just what families like ours did and it was bruising in every way but at the same time there was a strange seductiveness about it. So I was at the receiving end of some serious bullying which just got worse as I got older so that by the time I was half way through I think I'd become brutalised by it all. I'd taken on the ethos, absorbed it to such an extent I began to think it was normal. I suppose that wasn't surprising because alongside the brutality there was friendship, support, a whole lot of nurture. You bought into the package and to an extent just got on with it but in retrospect a lot of it was horrific, as I said brutal and brutalising. But there was another aspect I still find deeply troubling when I looked back that we all just took for granted, this was how things were, you just got on with it.
What is muted in both these quotes is the elitism that lies at the heart of private schooling in the UK. This is captured starkly in the words of Will, a contemporary public school boy, who told me: ‘We know we are the great and the good, that's obvious, what's less clear is which of us are going to be the leaders among the front runners.’
In 1931, when Tawney was writing Equality, he described how ‘former public school boys filled cabinets, governed the empire, commanded in armies and navies, dominated boardrooms, crowded the judicial bench and were the mandarins of the civil service’ (1964b: 76). Today, the situation remains almost exactly the same. In 2010 George Monbiot wrote: ‘Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships, and most importantly attendance at top universities, the privately educated upper middle classes run politics, the civil service, the arts, the city, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers’ (2010).
The majority of those at the top of the leading professions, Will's ‘front runners’, are still educated in private schools that remain largely closed to the majority of the population. According to a recent Sutton Trust Report (2009) this includes seven in ten of the leading judges and barristers, as well as a majority of the partners at top law firms, leading journalists and medical practitioners. But it is the historic intertwining of the private schools with the elite universities that has been particularly pernicious.
Along with private education, access to Oxbridge is still the main educational route to the top professions. As Carole Cadwalladr points out, Oxbridge is ‘a short hop, skip and a jump into the heart of the British establishment’ (Cadwalladr 2008). Eight in ten barristers and judges studied at either Oxford or Cambridge, as did a majority of top solicitors; 62 per cent of ministers in the current coalition government went to private schools and 69 per cent were educated at Oxbridge (Sutton Trust 2010b). The relational significance of all this is brought powerfully to life in the following statistics: in 2009, 79 male students receiving free school meals in state schools achieved three As at A level; in the same year 175 young men at Eton achieved three As; the number of children in 2009 who were eligible for free school meals, bearing in mind that every year 600,000 children attend state schools, was 80,000, of whom just 45 made it to Oxbridge.
Currently the ‘short hop’ from the private schools to Oxbridge and then into the upper echelons of the professions is perpetuating an insular, inward-looking, ruling elite. The seamlessness of upper middle-class social reproduction is evident in the quotes below:
Deciding which university was probably a very unscientific process actually. My father went to Trinity in Cambridge to do law and he was always very keen to show her his own college which he did when she was about thirteen and she fell in love with it. (Mother of privately educated student)
Well just since I've been born, I suppose it's just been assumed I am going to university because both my parents went to university, all their brothers and sisters went to university and my sister went to university so I don't think I've even stopped to think about it … I've just grown up with the idea that's what people do. I have always assumed I am going to university. (Nick, private school student)
Nick went on to point out that all these members of his family had been to either Oxford or Cambridge. The words in both quotes evoke images of elite conveyor belts rather than considered rational choice – it is just what ‘people like us do’. As myself and colleagues wrote at the time, ‘this is a non-decision’, almost too obvious to articulate (Reay 2005). Rather choice was automatic, taken-for-granted and always assumed. Financial concerns and worries were never raised. These families belong to the section of society who will be paying substantially less for an elite university education, even at the level of fees currently proposed, than they paid for their children's schooling.
Disrupting notions of ‘the best’
While the current structure of higher education needs to be extensively criticized there is also a need for a more philosophic discussion about what ‘the best’ constitutes in the higher education context. In particular, it is important to question the association of the elite universities with what is best in higher education. As the students I interviewed demonstrated, the homogeneity found in the elite universities can be both intellectually stifling and socially limiting. In my research with Gill Crozier and John Clayton (Reay 2009) we looked at working-class students who went to elite universities. Their narratives reveal the intellectual stimulation and growth that comes with attending places like Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time their accounts are an interesting counterbalance to conventional academic hierarchies that position universities like the one they attended as ‘the best’. While on one level they recognize and are grateful for the ‘value-added’ they are gaining academically, and are fiercely loyal about their university, the students all have a reflexive critique of the costs and losses, as well as the gains, in attending such universities. And these critiques all hinge one way or another on homogeneity. For all the students, there is too much sameness and not enough difference at elite universities.
We found that, even among those students who do successfully make the transition from working-class home to elite higher education institution, many of the same feelings and attitudes led the majority of high achieving working-class students to reject places like Oxford and Cambridge. For all the students in the elite university we referred to as ‘Southern’, it represented neither normativity, nor balance. Like the working-class students in Bufton's (2002) study, they made a distinction between ‘the real world’ and the academic world. They presented a university world of over-performativity, arcane practices and slightly autistic behaviour. This is evident in what Nicole says:
Like this notion of time is so intense, we refer to it as the Southern bubble because the nicest experience you can get when you're at Southern is leaving it … As soon as I realize I'm out of the city it's like a huge weight just goes and I'm like there's a real world out there. People will wake up the next morning if their essay isn't finished. People will still have a heart beating if they haven't finished their reading. The world isn't ending if you haven't finished your work. That's what the Southern bubble is, it's a time warp, it's so weird, so regimented by deadlines. (Nicole)
There is no talk here about academic brilliance and being ‘the brightest of the bright’, but rather an ironic recognition of the compulsive obsessive workaholic dispositions that constitute the highly successful academic habitus. For the most part, these students have a critically reflexive, questioning stance on Southern and what it represents. Critiques range from Nicole's observations that Southern is far too rarefied and segregated from the real world to Jamie's passionate assertion that, ‘Southern needs to pull in lots more non-traditional students but also to actively discourage private and selective state school students.’ With such views it is perhaps unsurprising that four of the nine students we interviewed were actively engaged in outreach work with non-selective state schools, trying to encourage other non-traditional students to apply.
At the time our research was being conducted a national broadsheet published an article on the front page entitled ‘Education apartheid as private schools flood elite universities’ (Paton 2007). Academically successful working-class students gain enormously from studying at institutions like Southern, flourishing as learners and growing in confidence, both academically and socially. The gains to the university are far less likely to be considered. In a period when the chances of working-class students, like the ones in our study, attending Southern are set to fall dramatically, I would argue that the ability of universities like Southern to renew and revitalize themselves, to became fully ‘paid-up’ members of the global, multicultural twenty-first century, is crucially dependent on attracting the very students who are going to be excluded.
As Archer and Leathwood argue, the assumption is always that it is ‘the working-class individual who must adapt and change, in order to fit into, and participate in, the (unchanged) higher education institutional culture’ (2003: 176). A second irony then has been the failure of the widening access and participation debate to recognize elite universities need non-traditional students just as much as the students need them. Both need the other in order to flourish, the students academically and the universities socially. Within the recent status quo, an enormous number of working-class students were excluded from realizing their academic potential and the coalition policy changes will exclude even greater numbers. Yet, equally worrying and even less recognized is the failure of the elite universities to realize their potential for combining academic excellence with a rich social diversity. Giddens (1991) has written about the dangers of an economically privileged and politically powerful elite floating free of connection with the vast majority of society. The elite universities risk becoming gated academic communities, white upper- and upper-middle-class ghettos: Nicole's privileged bubble, but with no way in and no way out.
The consequences of the privatization of higher education
Despite right-wing assertions that working-class young people will not be deterred by increased fees, existing research suggests otherwise. The Sutton Trust (2008a) found that aversion to debt was the major reason cited by young people for not going to university: 59 per cent of those who had decided not to pursue higher education reported that avoiding debt had affected their decision either ‘much’ or ‘very much’. The government now plans to raise the basic threshold for tuition fees at English universities to £6,000 a year, with institutions allowed to charge up to £9,000 in ‘exceptional circumstances’, circumstances which have rapidly become normalized. Students currently pay £3,290 a year. Atherton et al. (2010) questioned 2,700 young people aged between eleven and sixteen in 2010 and found that among those who would have been likely to go to university, only 68 per cent would still be confident of this if fees went up to £5,000, while if they had to pay £7,000 only 45 per cent would still be keen. Raising the cost of a degree to £5,000 a year would deter almost half of those from the most deprived backgrounds who would otherwise have gone on to higher education, while raising fees to £7,000 would cut the number by nearly two-thirds. The result of these changes is that the UK now combines the lowest spending on higher education of any comparable OECD country with the highest tuition fees for study at a public university. When tuition fees were first introduced in 1998, the additional income was invested in universities. However, this government has proposed that the biggest spending cut of all should fall on higher education. It has raised tuition fees in order to achieve a massive public disinvestment in higher education (to be replaced by public investment in a loans system that will increase indebtedness and act as a disincentive to those from poorer families).
This massive disinvestment in higher education will further exacerbate the growing divide between those students with parents who are able to subsidize their living costs sufficiently to enable them actually to be students and the growing majority who do not. Under the new regime this latter group will grow exponentially. A study by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (Hecsu) revealed in November 2010 that, even at current levels, student debt is leading more final-year students to take on part-time jobs during term-time and to work longer hours. But students at Oxford and Cambridge are not allowed to work in term-time and, indeed, the academic work expectations make it virtually impossible for them to do so. This will further deter working-class students from applying, especially as they are increasingly going to have to work throughout their university education in order to defray some of the mounting debts they are incurring.
While none of the privately educated students or their parents I interviewed mentioned financial worries, that was in sharp contrast to their working-class counterparts. When we conducted the research, students were expected to pay fees that were far lower than the new expectation of £6,000 to £9,000, yet working-class students talked constantly about the financial risks (Reay 2001). The head of sixth form of a predominantly working-class, multiethnic north London comprehensive told us:
There is an awful lot of concern about whether I can possibly afford to do this, whether I can possibly afford to take the risk, to take out student loans and self-finance my education. There is a process of having to say although it's very bleak there's a light at the end of the tunnel. But already students are worrying, have a lot of anxiety about how will their families afford this.
However, it is not only my own research which demonstrates the barriers confronting both white and black working-class students considering the elite universities. Current research by Graeme Atherton and colleagues (2010) found that 79 per cent of the working-class young people they surveyed in London and Merseyside still wanted to go to university but that 42 per cent were not prepared to pay fees of more than £5,000, and that percentage rose for those on free school meals, only 20 per cent of whom were willing to pay more than £5,000. They also found pervasive reluctance to borrow the sums that will be required if they are to realize their aspirations to attend university. There was also little appetite for shorter courses or part-time study (less than 25 per cent). The study also looked at what the government's promise of £150 million in scholarships would mean in practice. If fees average £7,000, 6,944 students in receipt of free school meals will be able to have scholarships; if the fees rise to £9,000 the number would be 5,555. This contrasts sharply with the number of such young people, 10,570, who went to university in 2009.
Of even more concern than the survey results were the themes of anxiety and loss that emerged from the small qualitative research that accompanied it (O'Rourke 2010). The words ‘worry’ and ‘worried’ came up 182 times in 6 focus group interviews, accompanied by a strong sense of loss. The young people and their parents talked about the loss and the threat of losing potentially good teachers, doctors and social workers, and what this means in terms of the loss to wider society if working-class young people were not able to study the courses at university they aspired to. They made the important point that just because some young people and their families can afford a course in medicine it does not mean that they are the right people for the job. Rather, the right person and their contribution to society may be lost because they can no longer afford to do such a course.
The onslaught of privatization within the university sector is not just about turning a university education from a public entitlement into a private investment most working-class young people cannot afford, it is also an attack on the university as a public institution. There has been a creeping privatization of higher education over the last twenty years, resulting in over 25 per cent of universities outsourcing aspects of their work from the running of their student residences to the maintenance of their buildings. However, now right-wing think-tanks such as Policy Exchange are strongly advocating more far-reaching privatization of many university services (Shepherd 2010). The stated objective, ‘greater efficiency’ is yet another spurious means to open up the university sector to what is termed ‘the free market’. However, the main consequence is the transformation of a public institution into a source of profit for many private firms.
Terry Eagleton argues that we have seen the death of universities as centres of critique. Rather, the role of academia has become one of ‘servicing the status quo, not challenging it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future’ (2010). The Browne Report is another nail in the coffin of the public university and a critical questioning academia. Its neo-liberal economizing is part of a wider right-wing drive to reshape education as just another market commodity (Lynch 2006). It is also yet another barrier to social mobility. Social mobility has become the chimera of modern times, continuously talked about, endlessly exaggerated, but more myth than reality.
In the late 1960s I went to university despite discouragement from teachers and personal lack of knowledge and information about higher education. I went because, as long as working-class young people succeeded educationally, higher education was a free right and entitlement open to them just as much as to their richer peers. I would not be going now, and I certainly would not be going once the new funding regime is implemented. The welfare state gave fresh hope and optimism to families like my own. Our forbears had been in service, worked down the mines and died in the workhouses, but developing forms of universal public provision bestowed a new sense of worth, entitlement and value, and the prospect of a better, brighter future. The contemporary political message is very different. Clever working-class children are entitled to go to university, but only if they are prepared to accrue debts that may well total £50,000 (and, indeed, potentially much more). Government and the state are not prepared to invest in them as potential graduates. They are no longer worth the risks involved, which they must now bear themselves. What we will be left with, particularly in our elite universities, is the triumph of the logic that Tawney ironically labelled ‘the beautiful English arrangement by which wealth protects learning, and learning in turn admits wealth as a kind of honorary member of its placid groves’ (1964a: 81). The vast majority of young people from poorer background will be relegated to what are perceived to be second and third division universities, encumbered with debts they have little prospect of ever paying off. A great deal of rhetoric about social mobility and equalities has emanated from the Liberal–Conservative coalition government but its higher education policies reveal that not only does the emperor have no clothes, he is rapidly dying of hypothermia.