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Re. Time the 'scum' rose to the top

Plashing Vole has once again posted one of those blogs which tends to make me leap up from my chair with rather inelegant enthusiasm.  With typical passion, he decries the attitude of 'The Hegemon' - that Old Etonian and Oxbridge Mafiosi that so dominate our political processes - towards Higher Education for the working classes.  Their definition of this as 'social engineering' he compares to descriptions of "grim young people" and "scum" made by affronted members of the cultural aristocracy in the first half of the twentieth century, and the answer to this cultural snobbery is to develop a passion and " a sense of belonging to an intellectual community".

As ever, it is difficult to find anything to disagree with here - and much to be passionately enthusiastic about.  However (as I am sure I have mentioned before) I do feel a concern for the way in which higher education for 'the masses' is being marginalised and shoe-horned into an academic cul-de-sac which takes away their voice and their ability to participate constructively in the social process beside merely supporting the established frameworks.

Of course, such views are enormously influenced by Paulo Freire's seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed (a book which remains as relevant as ever in a time when educational policy is being pushed further and further to the centre of the ideological conservatism of this current government.  Conservatism has always been stereotypically concerned with the preservation of privilege, but it remains a constant source of amazement to me that the inherently aristocratic values of this current government can be so deeply rooted in a discredited social history in today's 'enlightened' age.  Indeed, if anything our current political leaders are as aristocratically entrenched now as they have ever been - and although there are complex variations of how 'aristocracy' can be defined today, the medieval one works just as well as any.  Our political leaders are still staggeringly dominated by a bunch of privileged men who all went to the same schools and the same Universities:

Of course, in order for this political bourgoisie to maintain their domination, they need to marginalise the masses that might otherwise threaten them. This threat had become very real after the end of two world wars, which saw the population of the educated rich decimated and a national dependence on the working classes in order to defend itself.  Necessity meant that new doors of social opportunity had to be opened to those previously denied entry.  With the end of the second world war though, a new class struggle emerged as the 'Hegemony' attempted to close those doors again and restore (as far as possible) the social status quo of pre-1914 (Alan Sinfield's book Literature, Culture and Politics in Postwar Britain provides an excellent overview of this).  The working classes had been given a glimpse of education and opportunity for as long as the hegemony needed them, but the moment the conflict had ended a battle ensured to 'put them back in their place'.  The result was frustration, disappointment, and a rage which so characterised the writing of lower-middle and working-class writers like those Plashing Vole mentions: Wain, Braine, Kingsley Amis, Osborne.

John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger is a powerful illustration of this.  It's anti-hero Jimmy is an educated working-class man married to the upper-middle class Alison.  It is a marriage which had perhaps at one time seemed like a new dawn, and a broadening of horizons for both of them.  Things do not quite work out as intended though, and Alison is preparing to leave the marriage and retreat to the snobbish safety of her bourgeois family.  It is a symbolic attempt to return to a social order of the past, marginalising both Jimmy and everything he stands for.  It is the disappointment of this, and the frustration, which so enrages him.

Of course in reality the educational vacuum left by two world wars needed to be filled, and following a White Paper in 1966 there emerged a new player in the Higher Education game: The Polytechnic.  These institutions were designed to build what Antony Crossland described as a "binary system" of education: With Universities on the one hand teaching all their traditional subjects, and Polytechnics and FE Colleges on the other teaching more technical and vocational subjects.  This seemed to solve the problem nicely: It provided a classic two-tier system of education, so that education could be made more available to the 'masses' while preserving the distinctions of an education which had been traditionally reserved for the wealthy.

Polytechnics provided higher education for a much broader social spectrum, but that spectrum were never in any real doubt that a Polytechnic education was qualitatively inferior to a University education.  As one former student testified: "when I was a student in the late 80's - poly's were institutes of further education for people who were not 'clever' enough to pass to get into proper unis".

In 1992 the apparent distinction between Polytechnic and University education appeared to be eradicated by the Further and Higher Education Reform Act.  This act led to the awarding of University status to many of the more established Polytechnics, and the negative response by many told us much about the ways in which the 'binary' divide was as much political as it was educational.

Mary Warnock (degree in Philosophy, University of Oxford) bemoaned the potential loss of "the vocational role of the former polytechnics".  In other words, polytechnics were there to teach people she described as a "technical workforce" how to do a job (that job presumably being how to keep her boiler working, and how to install her telly).  Giving these 'oiks' access to things like Philosophy and a University degree status would simply take away the sheen of elitism enjoyed by the few, leaving that endangered species with "nothing left to do except cherish and preserve what pockets of excellence remain, whether in scholarship, in pure science or in the applications of science".

Presumably these 'pockets' she referred to could be found at places like her own St. Swithins or Eton schools - and, of course, the Universities which these private schools fill more than any other: Oxford and Cambridge. In truth, she needn't have worried.  Twenty years on, these new Universitied 'oiks' have done little damage to those pockets of elitism, and fortunately none of them have any real say in government (with the exception of Leeds Poly graduate Eric Pickles).  Of the 23 members of the Cabinet, 65% were educated at Oxford or Cambridge universities. 30% of them actually did the same degree at Oxford:

  • David Cameron,  Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • David Willets, Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford
  • William Hague, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Jeremy Hunt, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Phil Hammond, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Chris Huhne, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford
  • Danny Alexander, Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford 
  • Nick Clegg, Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge
  • Theresa May, Geography at Oxford
  • George Osborne, Modern History at Oxford
  • Andrew Mitchell, History at Cambridge
  • Owen Paterson, History at Cambridge
  • Ken Clarke, Law at Cambridge
  • Vince Cable, Economics at Cambridge
  • Michael Gove went to Oxford, but nobody really seems to know what he did there. He may have just been on holiday.
It is even more frightening when you realise that many of those not educated at Oxford or Cambridge still attended private schools.

So what has happened?  If the 1992 Act was intended to eradicate the binary divide between widening participation institutions like Polytechnics and Universities, why is our government as elitist as ever?

Part of the reason might be that even today many of those post-1992 Polytechnics are still being referred to as 'new' Universities, and seen as offering a distinct brand of Higher Education which distinguishes it from the elite 'pockets of excellence'.  They are still seen to have a primarily vocational and technical agenda.  As a lecturer delivering Higher Education in an FE College, I can certainly testify to the fact that ours is a context in which we are expected to deliver vocational awards - awards developed in partnership with employers for whom we might therefore provide a stream of qualified "technical workforce".

The government have helped us out in this respect, systematically reducing funding for arts and humanities degrees (like those studied by members of the government) in favour of 'technical' courses.  In 2010 the Guardian expressed fears that this would mean arts and humanities degrees become "the preserve of wealthy students" - and in effect this seems to have been the case.  Last year London Met announced plans to close as many as 240 degree courses, and the majority of those seemed to be arts and humanities subjects.  It is possible to envisage a time when only the wealthy graduates of Universities like Oxford and Cambridge will have the opportunity to study things like Philosophy or History.

And here is the point.  It is these subjects which invite students to question things.  It is these subjects which encourage students to analyse the ideologies which underpin the social fabric which surrounds us.  It is these subjects which encourage students to look at the way in which their lives are politically or socially shaped, and to imagine alternatives.  More technical or vocational subjects, the value of which I am not disputing, cannot really be said to spend much time on questions about ideologies and values. They are the academic cul-de-sac which I fear: The production-line of graduates who are only really educated to perform one commercial  task, with little or no flexibility and even less in terms of empowerment.

As Freire argued, if you want to protect the Hegemony, the best thing to do is to prevent the masses from learning how to question it. My making arts and humanities subjects available only to the wealthy, the wealthy protect themselves from scrutiny, from challenge and from rebellion.  Matthew Arnold argued in 1869 that "[p]lenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses" and the idea that technical or vocational subjects are the only ones 'proper' for widening participation HEIs seems to reflect this cultural elitism.  For all his faults (and his patronising brand of cultural authoritarianism was certainly a fault) Arnold was someone who was "not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man" - what the elite had, he wanted the masses to have too.

This year I have seen graduates walking away from the FE College I work in bearing excellent degrees that they have sweated blood to achieve, against obstacles which my own middle-class background finds it hard to imagine. More than that though, I have seen them walking away not satisfied. I have seen them walking away angry. Angry about cultural marginalisation. Angry about media and political manipulation. I have seen them walk away believing that things (even - indeed perhaps especially - their lecturers) could, and should be better.  I have seen them ready to talk about it, and eloquent in doing so. And I do not think they are remotely less employable for it.

Their studies may not be responsible for this, but it has encouraged it. These students reflect the opposite spectrum of society to that which is reflected by their government.  The more of them there are, and the more vocal they become, the more they will form an intellectual community of their own capable of offering that challenge and rebellion the Hegemony fear.

My hope is that when I retire, degrees will still be taught at the College I work in - but they will not be taught by people like me. They will be taught by people like those who are graduating now. The curriculum will be theirs, and then who knows: Perhaps one day, so will the government.

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