Improving access is not enough

Our higher education system needs to be radically overhauled to create a fairer, more equal society.

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Oxford and Cambridge have an access problem; this is news to nobody. In September, we found out that Oxford spends £108,000 to recruit each extra low-income student. In October, a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, said that Welsh students lack the confidence to apply to Oxbridge. In December, thanks to new research, we discovered that eight schools send as many pupils to Oxbridge as three-quarters of schools altogether.

And these problems aren’t limited to Oxbridge: almost every Russell Group university over-recruits from private and grammar schools and from higher social classes. These stats are telling indictments of our Higher Education system, where your chances of a good education are overtly influenced by your social background. Campaigns against this unfairness aim for equality of opportunity; a state of affairs where everybody has an equal chance of gaining entry to top universities. But this solution is not enough. Access and opportunity are not the be all and end all for society and education.

Admitting more students from marginalised backgrounds doesn’t challenge existing power structures — it just assimilates people into them. An education at a top university co-opts people into the ruling class, furnishing them with incentives to perpetuate inequality and maintain the social barriers that they had to break through in the first place.

If a student from a working-class background gains entry to Oxford, becomes a lawyer, and sends their children to a top private school, then they have acted to recreate the social conditions that made their entry to Oxford in the first place so unlikely. This is not to blame the individual — it is perfectly rational to behave in this way — but shows how socially exclusive structures create the conditions for their own survival.

This is contingent on an assessment of elite universities as inherently harmful, forces for evil within society. Initially, this might not seem to be the case. As we’re often told, UK universities produce world-class research and discoveries, ranking as some of the best universities in the world. This is true, and those lucky enough to gain entry to Oxford, Cambridge or another Russell Group receive a host of opportunities.

But this necessarily denies these opportunities to everybody else. Top-class education is a scarce resource: we can’t provide everybody with the very best education. Like with grammar schools, focusing public money and initiative disproportionately on elite institutions represents an unfair concentration of resources. The existence of Oxbridge and other elite universities prevents us from distributing educational funding in a way which is more equitable and socially beneficial.

The extent to which Oxford and Cambridge, in particular, represent a concentration of resources is astonishing. Analysis by The Guardian has revealed that Oxford and Cambridge hold over £20bn in wealth, more than the combined investment of all 22 Russell Group universities. The government gives Oxford and Cambridge £7m extra a year for one-to-one teaching and individual interviews.

Oxbridge are allowed to have an earlier application deadline than other universities and Oxbridge graduates dominate top media and government jobs to a ridiculous extent. According to Sutton Trust research, 74% of the top judiciary went to Oxbridge, alongside 54% of the country’s leading journalists and 47% of the cabinet. Simply, Oxford and Cambridge dominate UK higher education and society on a scale not present in any other major Western country, bar the US.

As with Meghan Markle’s ascension to the royal family, or the appointment of Gina Haspel as the first female director of the CIA, there is a tendency to celebrate the inclusion of marginalised groups into oppressive power structures without interrogating their existence. Obviously, Oxbridge isn’t as bad as the CIA, but its place as the standard-bearer for the UK’s stratified and hierarchical university system has socially detrimental effects.

Rather than asking if the people receiving the benefits of an Oxbridge education are diverse, we should first ask if conferring such benefits on a narrow sliver of the population is really good for society in the first place. In doing so, we tightly control access to the best teaching, as well as the best opportunities post-graduation. If we dedicate public resources and focus to a select group of people, regardless of its makeup, we unavoidably get elitism and inequality.

To pre-empt an obvious criticism, clearly improving access is a good thing, and in a non-trivial way. Not only is it more pragmatic than overhauling our education system, but meaningfully improving the lives of marginalised groups (as access helps to do) is a significant and worthy pursuit. In addition, reform and revolution are not exclusive goals—we can strive for better access, whilst still recognising that we ought to be more ambitious on the whole.

That said, access is ultimately not enough for the same reason that social mobility is not enough. Implicit in the concept of social mobility is winners and losers; there has to be a class for people to leave behind. Some people can succeed, but others have to stagnate and stay put for this to happen. The philosopher G.A. Cohen argued that rather than social mobility, we should aim for class mobility: a principle of ‘I want to rise with my class, not above my class.’ Instead of seeking to create pathways for individuals to succeed, we ought to create conditions where everybody can be better off.

Incremental change and reform in the shape of improving access and diversity within hyper-selective institutions does not tackle the root issue. Equal opportunity for admission to ‘good’ universities does not escape the problem that their existence necessitates the existence of opposing, ‘bad’ universities.

Regardless of the social makeup of Oxford, Cambridge, and other elite universities, they are necessarily exclusive and serve to confer outsized benefits on a small group of people, as well as incentivising them to reproduce and socially oppressive conditions. We cannot build a society where everybody prospers, and everybody is afforded equal attention by the state, without a drastic change.

Access efforts are not enough. Elite universities being representative of the public would be better than the current state of affairs, but their existence necessarily drives social division and injustice; improving access makes this more palatable and acceptable. The only way to solve this problem is a radical transformation of our higher education system, such that everybody is equally prioritised, and everybody receives equal benefit.

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