Tear Down the Fences
I was talking a while ago to an academic I’ve known for more than a decade. I’ve always assumed from his accent that he is, like me, from a privileged background in the south of England. He laughed when I told him this and revealed he was from Hartlepool but had lost his accent as an undergraduate at Cambridge.
Few people who have spent time in ‘elite’ universities will have been surprised by recent stories that students at Durham were ridiculed for their northern accents. ‘I persistently became the butt of jokes about coalmining,’ Lauren White reported. Durham is the worst university in the country for recruiting from its region: only 10.1 per cent of its first-degree, full-time UK students in 2018-19 came from the north-east (although it has impressive foundation year programmes that reach some of those locally who would otherwise be unlikely to attend university). The Russell Group generally performs poorly by this measure, certainly compared to institutions such as Wolverhampton or Edge Hill, which recruit more than 80 per cent of students from their regions.
Of course, many people joyfully acquire new ideas and a new sense of themselves when they go to university. But I have often heard students report similar experiences to those at Durham. Diane Reay has chronicled it as a perennial issue for working class students. Why is it that we sometimes require people to lose their voices when they enter higher education? Why would a student feel the university and the community they grew up in are different worlds, and they need to change identity when passing between them?
A simple answer is that the system encourages it. The extraordinary expansion of higher education in the UK since 1945 has been reliant, with heroic exceptions such as the Open University, on the assumption that a student will be an 18-year-old, pursuing a conventional route from school, and living away from home for three or four years. The Covid-19 crisis has thrown this model into sharp relief. Even with a large proportion of teaching moved online, thousands of students have travelled across the country to live where they are studying. In many university towns, the number of cases has risen dramatically since the start of term.
Ahead of the new national lockdown, the University of Manchester this week put up fences around its Fallowfield halls of residence. It was unclear whether they were intended to keep the virus trapped inside or out. Students renamed the place HMP Fallowfield, and last night tore the fences down. ‘The fencing was intended as a response to a number of concerns,’ the vice-chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, said. ‘Particularly about access by people who are not residents.’ There is a long tradition of walls around universities to keep ‘non-residents’ out. Hardy’s Jude Fawley scrawls a verse from the Book of Job on the wall of the university (modelled on Oxford) that he cannot enter: ‘I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you.’ The adult education tradition in the UK was named ‘extra-mural studies’. There is ongoing speculation about how the Christmas holiday should be managed, to avoid further spreading of Covid-19 when large numbers of students return home.
The social and political consequences of a mass higher education system of this kind are profound. Universities are helping to increase the divide between cities, with high concentrations of graduates, and towns or rural areas. The schism is also influencing voting trends. ‘The Brexit referendum revealed a country deeply divided on a number of measures that cut across party ties,’ David Runciman has written. ‘One was age … But another division, just as pronounced, was education: whether or not someone had gone to university was one of strongest indicators of voting behaviour in the referendum.’
It is now becoming fashionable to say that we have too many graduates, and there are legitimate arguments that further education and vocational training have been neglected. But discussions about the expansion or contraction of universities assume that we should persist with a model that originated several hundred years ago for a small group of privileged men, who were often training for a profession they would pursue for life. Yet we have an aging population, and most of us will need to retrain frequently during our lives as the economy changes with the fourth industrial revolution.
Our higher education system could yet prove obsolete in its current form. Universities have so far been resilient against the disruption that the digital world has caused to newspapers, for example. But Google’s new Career Certificates programme, offering six-month courses for profession-specific qualifications, is just one sign of the alternatives emerging. Innovations are also evident within the higher education sector. The London Interdisciplinary School, the first new institution to be granted degree-awarding powers since the 1960s, will have a single programme, cutting across disciplines. Yet it still assumes students will have prior qualifications and study full-time.
Imagine if, in the postwar years, universities had expanded using a different model that was near to hand. For most of the 20th century, universities such as Durham were ‘responsible bodies’, providing adult education classes throughout their region.
E.P. Thompson joined the Leeds Extramural Department in 1948 because he wanted to ‘learn something about industrial England and teach people who would teach me’. The Making of the English Working Classes was written and published during his 17 years at Leeds, where he taught literature and history, mainly in the industrial towns of the West Riding, to students of all ages and backgrounds. The department’s staff travelled across the region, as far north as Middlesbrough (some 70 miles away). Thompson’s classes, he reflected, produced a ‘social dialectic’ that was ‘full of possibilities’: ‘The testing of academic scholarship by the action and experience of a social class too long neglected: the interplay and conflict of abstract, passive, contemplative experience and concrete, active, productive experience.’ This kind of dialogue is missing from our current model of higher education, which too often requires students to discard their existing knowledge and sense of identity on entry.
Now imagine a higher education system in which close to 100 per cent of the population could participate in shorter or longer courses, at different times, alongside work and caring responsibilities, without having to choose between university and vocational training. It would anchor universities in their regions. Partnerships with industry would be easier to achieve with shorter, flexible programmes of study. Students would test what they learned against their existing skills and experiences, and academic work would be informed by a range of perspectives. Nobody would have to lose their voice.