I did a post for the New Left Project this week on the idea of a comprehensive system of higher education. It’s something I’ve been ranting about for a while, and the A-level results pushed me into tapping something out. Here’s a taster of the argument:
I went to a comprehensive school, why not a comprehensive university? We rarely admit the class issues tied up in higher education, but we all know it’s there. We wouldn’t get stuck in that perennial debate about access to Oxbridge otherwise. You know, the one we have every bloody year which rarely gets much beyond Oxbridge grads looking smug and everyone else looking bitter. It’s as depressing, uncomfortable, clichéd and unproductive as all those pictures of jumping blondes. Because it’s not Oxbridge vs everyone else or even Russell Group vs post-1992, it’s a whole system that imagines it can divide people by degrees of “excellence” (whatever that is) and that this is an appropriate thing to do.
In particular, I object to the idea that the social inequality which surrounds universities is just an input problem. Many “top” universities are quick to say it’s the fault of schools or just society-at-large, as if they aren’t somehow also part of this society or have an impact on school education. Yes, many universities do a lot of outreach, but surely that’s just sticking a plaster on a wound that should be amputated. We need to appreciate the role of universities as engines of social inequality, not just in terms of who goes where post-graduation, but in terms of an entire culture of social stratification that they draw upon, support and express.
You can read the full piece at the New Left Project (and the comments, some of which are very interesting). It’s very much a think piece. As it was received more positively than I’d expected, I guess the next stage is to consider a more practical route to such a policy. I need to look into how the systems in France and Italy work (and don’t work) for example. If any one has any reading tips, let me know.
The pics here are of graffiti I found round UCL in winter 2010, when the anti-fees protests first kicked off, if you were wondering.