Elitism and Oxbridge: it is the hardy perennial of debate about the state of our universities. Last month yet another report – this one from the Sutton Trust – highlighted the extent to which Oxford and Cambridge remain dominated by students from the south-east of England, many of them selected from a small number of elite fee-paying and selective state schools.
The stark inequity of Oxbridge and Russell Group admissions has been a recurrent theme for at least a decade. Despite genuine efforts to increase access for students from marginalised communities, progress has been achingly slow. So it’s easy to see why access to elite institutions has come to be seen as the litmus test of how equal our higher education system is. But a preoccupation with squeezing a few more poorer students through the narrow gates of elite colleges, desirable though that is, has eclipsed the real problem bedevilling our university system: a fair deal for the institutions that are educating everybody else.
In post-1992 universities, funding has been slashed and finances threatened for access and foundation courses in further education colleges, and for learning courses in community centres. And in the post-2010 era of cuts, the notion of lifelong learning has virtually fallen off the radar. Combining an austerity agenda with increasing tuition fees was not compatible with an egalitarian notion of access to education. It was much easier to focus attention on numbers of young people from working-class and ethnic-minority communities entering elite universities, than on older students doing access courses at FE colleges or taking part-time degrees at former polytechnics or the Open University.
The fairytale of social mobility for a few trumped the less glamorous reality of educational access for the many. As a result, education policy has become dominated by the impossible dream of perfect social mobility.
Of course there is no doubt about the need to diversify elite institutions and change their cultures, but the danger is that we then see educational inequality as solely a problem of individual success stories rather than collective provision. There is nothing democratic or egalitarian about concentrating vast financial resources in the education of a narrow elite while dismantling the educational institutions that serve the rest. The cultural and economic democracy we need is not compatible with a model of higher education that is so deeply hierarchical.
Our priority should be to increase the prospect of good jobs and fulfilling careers, especially in the marginalised communities that have expressed their anger through the Brexit vote. We don’t need to redouble our attention on wealthy elite universities in south-east England. What we need is to redistribute cultural and economic wealth away from these bastions of privilege.
Faiza Shaheen, the director of the Class thinktank, has spoken about the need to go beyond the language of social mobility and think about what collective success in education looks like. The alternatives to a hierarchical system are not hard to find. A recent book by Bristol academics, Who Are Universities For?, outlines a flatter model in which, crucially, it is far easier to move from work into education and back again. The argument is that, in recruitment to higher education, students from local communities should be a greater priority – meaning inclusive curricula which reflect the intake.
Instead of deep divisions between academic and vocational courses, a modular system of credits for individual courses would allow greater movement between different institutions and subjects. Eventually the old divisions characterising the traditional degree structure would dissolve into a more fluid model of education, which people dip in and out of over the course of their lives.
Yet the educational solutions we need cannot stop with fairer access. We also need universities that are run democratically in the interests of students and staff – and serve their local community. At the University of Leicester in 2016, staff and local people campaigned against the university managers’ decision to close down the lifelong learning centre, Vaughan College. The managers ignored the voices of staff and students, and the centre will finally close in 2020. But staff from the college have refounded it as a cooperative, running courses for adult learners with the aim of continuing to provide access to higher education for adults in the city.
Similar experiments in cooperative education have been developed in Lincoln, where a project to establish a cooperative university with full degree-awarding powers is currently under way. These are the kinds of projects that can really contribute to a more egalitarian university system.
In a country that has been divided by Brexit and is still to find its post-industrial identity, we need to jettison the idea of universities as the dreaming spires to which a lucky few can find their way. This means dismantling and transforming our ideas about what education is and who it is for.
The beginnings of a new educational politics are visible in places like Lincoln and Leicester; what is needed among researchers and policymakers is the courage to respond collectively to foster and deepen these ideas. If education is to be transformational and to play a role in the economic, social and regional redistribution our country needs, then those who work in universities have to question what our collective role is and what we want it to be. And the answer has to be bigger than widening access to Oxford and Cambridge.
• Sol Gamsu is a sociology lecturer at Durham University and a researcher on education and inequality