by Rob Cuthbert
It started as just a crazy idea proposed by a few naive idealists, mostly privately-schooled Oxbridge graduates, a motion never likely to get onto the main conference agenda. But with the HE party dominated by guilt-ridden privately-schooled Oxbridge graduates, not only did it ‘gain traction’, as they say in the mainstream media, it was stiffened up as it moved closer and closer to adoption.
On the surface it had a lot of appeal. Most prime ministers went to Balliol College, Oxford, most spies went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Oxbridge seemed to be wealthier than the rest of HE put together. Let’s share it all out more fairly. What’s not to like?
There was a problem with some of the proposed amendments. First of all was the one proposing to #AbolishTheRussellGroup instead. After all, the Russell Group had a lot more money than the rest of HE, even if they didn’t have the endowments to show for it. Clearly the amendment was more egalitarian than the original motion, so it was a bit hard to argue against, but a lot of people did, mostly the ones who hadn’t got jobs at Oxbridge but worked in the Russell Group. They developed lots of superficially persuasive arguments about how much more accessible the Russell Group was, especially nowadays. Or at least, how much more polished their Access and Participation Plans were nowadays. The opponents of the amendments were however hamstrung by the support of their trade union, the, er, Russell Group, which had always existed solely to promote and defend the elitist excellence of their members and put out documents about their members with titles like The Jewel in the Crown.
The #AbolishTheRussellGroup proposers were a mixed bunch, but obviously in a more declassé way. Most were from the rest of HE: fuelled by a mix of egalitarianism, guilt and resentment, quite a few had Oxbridge degrees, but most of them were graduates of Russell Group universities. (So, not very declassé then.) It looked at first as if they might carry their amendment on the HE conference floor, even despite the block votes from UUK and the Russell Group, because they already had a well-oiled, if small and frugal, machine, long dedicated to complaining about the unfairness of resource distribution in HE. They even had their own hashtag, #MillionPlus. And they gained support in the end from the Alliance group, who as usual spent a lot of time, Frost Report style, wondering whether to look up or look down, before choosing sides.
But then they had a shock from an unexpected quarter. The NUS, which had already shown its unreliability by electing leaders who weren’t even in HE, put forward its own amendment, #AbolishHE. They wanted to replace HE with #TertiaryEducation. After all, HE had a lot more money than FE and what was sometimes called vocational training. (As a term of implicit denigration, that obviously did not apply to things like medicine and the law, but only to those far below the salt.) Clearly the NUS amendment was even more egalitarian than #AbolishTheRussellGroup, so it was a bit hard to argue against, but a lot of people did. They developed lots of superficially persuasive arguments about how important it was to maintain standards in HE and how much more money HE needed than FE as a consequence. Or at least, how much more expensive HE buildings were than FE colleges, and how much harder it was to work in HE than FE, even though FE teachers had bigger teaching loads.
The proposers of #AbolishHE were however hamstrung by the infighting on their own side. The International Secondaryists wanted to amend the amendment so as to support #PostSecondaryEducation, with a moderate faction, Supporters Of the Further Tendency (SOFT) left arguing for #FurtherEducation. It all meant that the support for #AbolishHE was hopelessly split; #AbolishTheRussellGroup carried the day, and the party executive were charged with working up detailed policy proposals. It turned out there were some quite well-argued proposals already out there:
“… it is regarded as normal and preferable that a young person who does achieve top grades at school should avoid the universities that are less selective. Yet there is no reason for doing this based on any systematic differences in teaching quality or the likelihood of completing or obtaining a good degree classification once student background is taken into account. We instead appear to be in a world based on snobbery and discrimination rather than evidence, which is socially damaging and could be producing worse educational outcomes overall.” So the idea of comprehensive universities only needed to overcome the same problem as #AbolishEton, which was how to prevent the creation of middle class enclaves around some universities, sustained by house prices beyond the reach of all but the privileged and comparatively few. A bit like the status quo, only less transparent. But the HE party hadn’t yet worked out how to abolish the HE market, and abolishing the housing market looked a lot harder; even #AbolishEton hadn’t got past that one, so the party executive decided that they needed something different. They wondered if Meritocracy (rebranded, obviously: they didn’t want anyone looking too closely at the original) might suffice? At least to deal with the 50% who weren’t in HE.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics