Year after year, the admissions figures for Oxford and Cambridge universities tell a grim story about the persistence of inequality in Britain. The privately-educated—seven percent of the population—make up roughly forty percent of admissions. The most privileged demographic groups make up eighty percent. These elite graduates go on to dominate the upper echelons of society, being disproportionately represented at Westminster, in the national media and elsewhere.
Despite this inequality, for decades the education system was at least well resourced enough to offer the rest of society a shot at reaching the top table. That has been curtailed in the last ten years. Among the many issues overshadowed by Brexit is the financial crisis confronting state schools and further education institutions, which threatens to blight the life chances of a whole generation. Savage cuts are accompanied by a ruthless marketisation agenda, eroding the ethos of public universities, further advantaging elite applicants and pushing institutions to the brink of bankruptcy.
This presents a stark and urgent challenge to any new incoming Labour government: how can it not only repair the ladder of opportunity that our education system offered millions, resourcing it better than ever, but also make its opportunities less dependent on class privilege? Economic measures such as reversing austerity and redistributing wealth are necessary to ensure that the education sector is funded properly. But these ideas are only part of the picture when it comes to ending inequality in education.
A raft of bold ideas for closing the gap have been suggested by voices from across the Labour movement. Of course, we could follow the advice of Karl Marx by abolishing private schools altogether (or at the very least, the advice of David Miliband by abolishing their charitable status). Ed Miliband, meanwhile, points to a middle ground in the widely lauded Finnish education system, where state and private education is integrated and not predicated on a family’s ability to stump up massive fees.
There have been a range of ideas for improving access—from “contextualised admissions”, where university applicants from poorer communities would be favoured, to establishing Oxbridge “access colleges” for state-educated students, or perhaps even scrapping Oxbridge altogether for undergraduates, leveling the playing field by making their colleges exclusively postgraduate research institutions. But it can be all too easy to focus just on admission policies as a way of improving educational access.
Equally as vital is a focus on the beginning of the admissions pipeline. Diversifying methods of assessment to improve the accessibility of exams could pay dividends: if assessment via spoken exams or written research is good enough for trainee academics, why not for undergraduates? This would also make more allowance for the needs of students with learning difficulties who may be gifted, but find standardised exams an impediment, an issue highlighted in the Labour Autism/Neurodiversity Manifesto.
Most compelling, however, is a groundbreaking plan for overhauling the universities system, set out by University of Bristol academics Josie McLellan, Richard Pettigrew and Tom Sperlinge, in their book Who are Universities For?
At the heart of their vision is a “modular system” of higher education which would abolish the concept of graduation. Students would be allowed to study towards an unlimited amount of qualifications and would not be obliged to read for regimented degrees. Lifelong learning would be built into the system. The distinction between traditional universities, and further education colleges, “would ultimately dissolve”—effectively a creating a universal, non-geographic campus.
This would not only expand access, but normalise part-time learning and facilitate the inclusion of mature students over 21. A universal foundation course would be open to all applicants, giving mature learners an equal status with school-leavers. Postgrad-level courses would still be exclusive, but they would not be strictly contingent on the completion of undergraduate degrees and would be more equivalent to the specialist diplomas of the French academic system.
Critics will question the affordability of this generous system, but the status quo has its own problems. Student debt is on course to rise to an eye-watering £1 trillion—even before considering that the never-ending argument over scrapping tuition fees all too often misses that the cost of living is a more immediate concern for most students. As an alternative to student loans, McLellan et al. propose a “participatory education tax” raising up to £18 billion per year, vastly more than the sums raised by the loans system. The PET would be a progressive graduate tax, with the most qualified, highest earners contributing the most. This revenue would provide the means not just for student grants, but guaranteed housing, childcare and improved mental health support.
These proposals would be fully in the spirit of a Labour institution which already embodies the ideal of a universally accessible education system: the Open University.
The OU, pioneered by Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee, offers quality tertiary education via distance learning and is one of Labour’s finest accomplishments in government. The OU gave adult learners, who missed out on the traditional route to university, the chance to remotely study for a degree or foundation qualifications. A prime example of its success is John Reid, a working class trade unionist who held multiple Cabinet offices under Tony Blair. Sadly, the OU has borne the brunt of austerity and been lamentably diminished by business-obsessed reforms.
Thankfully there is cause for optimism in a Labour policy even more ambitious than the OU: the cradle-to-grave National Education Service offering free university, vocational and technical education. Labour could not only rebuild the Open University under the NES, but adopt McLellan et al’s radical blueprint—making even the dreaming spires of Oxbridge Open Universities.
If Labour’s overarching mission is the tearing down of social barriers, then a revolution in education should be one of its priorities.