Tear Down the Fences

Tom Sperlinger

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.


  • 7 November 2020 at 8:58am
    William Lancaster says:
    Durham was founded in the late 1830s thanks to the vast coal mining royalties paid to the Anglican diocese. The cathedral hierarchy fearful of church disestablishment and anticipating a radical victory created a bolt hole for themselves. Local miners were often angry by the claim that the church received as much royalty income as wages paid to pitmen. There has been a long-standing antipathy between the University and it's hinterland. It is certainly not perceived as 'Wor' University'.

  • 7 November 2020 at 6:29pm
    beast says:
    Whatever Rothwell says, the fences at Fallowfield were put up for one reason only: to stop students from the various accommodation blocks visiting each other in their own homes, since this has been ruled actually illegal by the government since it was taken hostage by something called 'SAGE'. However, since they are 18 years old and have all had the virus already, they took matters into their own hands, refreshingly. Hopefully a sign of things to come nationally.

    • 7 November 2020 at 10:49pm
      Robin Durie says: @ beast
      Tom implies a further point about Rothwell - a few years back, her University received significant funding from HEFCE, UKRI & Wellcome to be a Beacon for public engagement. Her university bid for this funding - & she was absolutely at the forefront of this claim - on the basis of a vision of the University being open to, accessible by, and welcoming to, the communities & the residents that neighbour Manchester University. If her rationale for this fencing were remotely true, then these reprehensible actions undermine every principle, value & practice on which her institution received millions of pounds of funding.

  • 9 November 2020 at 9:59pm
    Laurie Strachan says:
    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young person in possession of a university entrance will behave like an idiot. Have these brilliant young minds no sense of social responsibility? Is it too much to ask of them that they show some solidarity with the locked down communities that surround them? Have they not noticed that nearly 50000 people have died in the UK alone of coronavirus? Are they aware that a pandemic is raging across the world?

    Or do they just not give a damn?

    • 15 November 2020 at 1:40pm
      beast says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Manchester was not 'locked down' when the fences were put up. These students have every right to socialise in their own homes, without being thought of as a 'thing to be policed' by the university, private security guards, the actual police, and people like you. All the young people I know have a very developed sense of social responsibility, but are beginning to baulk at being sanctimoniously blamed for 'killing granny' in a way that never happened in previous years when outbreaks of flu also led to 50k deaths or so.

    • 19 November 2020 at 11:01am
      Rory Allen says: @ beast
      Flu deaths of "50k or so"? Not for some time, certainly.

      According to estimates from Public Health England, 17,000 people have died from the flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19 - with the yearly deaths varying widely from a high of 28,330 in 2014/15 to a low of 1,692 in 2018/19.

      I know it is boring to quote figures but we should at least try to get them right.

      Even if people do not die from covid, a large proportion need intensive care in hospital and the fear is that this could overwhelm the system. And people who appear to recover well sometimes develop so-called "long covid": nobody knows yet how serious this will be overall, but it is something we didn't see with flu.

  • 10 November 2020 at 4:15pm
    Mr Reasonable says:
    It's a bit much to conflate restricting access to halls of residence with restricting access to academia. These are people's homes and not all the students were happy about others who didn't live there coming and going freely. Some residents said they felt unsafe. The university bungled their response but that doesn't make it guilty of some sort of elitism.

  • 13 November 2020 at 9:04am
    Mark Leopold says:
    I was the first in my wider family to be educated beyond 16, going to Oxford in 1976 when less than 10% of 18 year olds got to university, and I taught in British universities for 25 years. I think one aspect of the opening up of university education has received little attention. Given the class nature of British society, the process has led to many more fairly unintelligent middle and upper class students getting into university than before, as well as the previously excluded bright working class ones. The former may even be the larger group, and certainly predominate at some establishments. It illustrates a key point often missing from discussions about education; schools and universities are social institutions that reflect the wider society, they don't create it.

  • 18 November 2020 at 1:28pm
    Jackie Goodman says:
    In addition, to encourage lifelong learning, the benefits system needs to recognise the needs of post-grad students and those undertaking further training to improve their job prospects and not force them to work so many hours to qualify for childcare that they have little time for studies/training. This becomes ever more important in the current context of unemployment. A comprehensive review of the nature of learning opportunities and financial support is urgently required.

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