“Why so divisive?” Defending colleges for state school pupils

I recently published an article for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section, making the case for the introduction of Oxbridge colleges exclusively for students from state school backgrounds.  Collected below are the full responses to questions put to me by undergraduates Basha Wells-Dion and Jack May for TCS, and by Daniel Baker for a piece for Cambridge News.

JM: “Why do you think the article has had such a divisive response?” 

I suppose it’s because a lot of people, especially people who already study or teach at Oxbridge, have a lot invested in the status quo (much as they might make noises, from time to time, about the need for change).  People who themselves went to a private school, or who send their children to private schools, are likely to react defensively for obvious reasons: what’s at issue here is an attack on a system from which they have benefited.  Some people who went to state schools and are now at Oxbridge can slip into the trap of thinking that because they made it, the system can’t be as bad as all that.  But the people who might have liked to study at Oxbridge, but were put off applying, or were rejected in favour of students who had enjoyed far greater advantages, might well feel differently.

Others are genuinely worried that a move like this would be patronising, or that it would be counterproductive because of the stigma or backlash it would be likely to attract.  I don’t see it as patronising in the least.  The point is just that we shouldn’t be supporting and rewarding a system which gives huge advantages to those who happen to have been bought an expensive education.  Attempts to criticise or remedy oppression or inequality or injustice are invariably accused of being patronising: it’s par for the course.  The same goes for the claim that it would be ‘counterproductive’ to act.  Any political intervention worth making will inevitably be met with attempts to stigmatise and discredit it, because vested interests are being attacked.  What is the answer? Do nothing? Stick with what we’ve got? Wait? That way of arguing seems very familiar, and very convenient.  It’s certainly true that a real solution to the problem of access to higher education would require more far-reaching social change, the eradication of poverty and systemic inequality in schooling.  In my view, that means abolishing private schools (for a start).  But what should an elite educational institution like an Oxbridge college do, here and now? Wait around for proper social change to happen, or take action?

B W-D: Have you experienced any disparity in the way state and private school students are treated at Cambridge?

I haven’t found supervisors treating state and private school students differently (though others may have different experiences), but what I think is quite pervasive is the phenomenon whereby students from private schools (or who appear to be from private schools – sometimes appearances are misleading of course) dominate in seminar and lecture settings or group supervisions.  A great amount of individual variation notwithstanding, levels of confidence and the sense of entitlement are both gendered and classed.  And that’s a problem that is self-perpetuating: when a privately educated white male speaks at length and with an air of confidence in a seminar, this can have a demoralising effect on others present.  You think, “He must know what he’s talking about” – what he’s saying might not seem to you to make a lot of sense, but you think, “maybe that’s because I’m too stupid to understand it”.  I certainly struggled with that.  Even when you don’t really believe, on an intellectual level, that the difference in confidence is really warranted or grounded in anything, it’s very difficult not to let that have an effect on the way you feel.  You can end up less able to contribute, less motivated to work, or just unwilling to engage in a game that you feel kind of assaulted by.  This goes for many women from all backgrounds, as well as those of all genders from state schools.  Of course, there are people who say, “I’ll show them…” – a lot of factors influence whether that reaction is really possible for a person. But the point is that they shouldn’t have to be put in that situation in the first place, just because of their gender or the kind of school they went to.

JM: “Just to clarify, would you rather see existing colleges stop accepting private school students, or found new colleges exclusively designed for state school students?”

In the article, I left it an open question whether new colleges should be founded, or whether existing colleges should ‘go state’.  But the latter seems to me the more feasible option.  It also avoids the problem that a new state-only college might be seen as a kind of gimmick.  Existing colleges already have their resources and reputations and identities – and some colleges present themselves as taking a strong stand on issues of social justice and as being particularly welcoming to students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds.  There’s often a bit of gap between the image and the reality.  But there is a simple way for a college to show it is really serious about access: it could stop admitting students from private school backgrounds, who are dramatically over-represented already, and concentrate on the 93 percent of the population of kids who go to state schools.

Either way, in order to work, the scheme would need to be well publicised and transparent.  It would also have to be accompanied by a serious push in terms of supporting students financially and relieving the burden of debt.  It’s all very well to get more state school students into elite universities, but nobody should have to graduate with 60K of debt.  A state school only college would inevitably be controversial, and would turn off some potential donors, but it could also impress and attract many others who care about access.  Elite institutions have a responsibility both to keep raising the necessary funds to support students during their studies, and also to use their position of privilege and influence to put pressure on the Government and to side with the tens of thousands of students who are still fighting for free education.

DB: To what extent would this reverse the current drop in state school admissions? 

That would of course depend on the scale and manner of implementation, but having even a single state-only college could make quite a substantial difference.  A bold, public move like this might also encourage people to apply who wouldn’t otherwise have done so.

DB: Would state school students be happy to go to an exclusive college or would it be just the same as ‘going to Oxbridge’ full stop? 

Whether implemented by founding new colleges or by changing the admissions procedures of existing ones, state school only Oxbridge colleges would still be Oxbridge colleges (just as the women’s colleges in Cambridge are).  As to whether state school pupils would want to go to them, that is up to them, but I imagine that the existence of a college which recruited only from the state sector would have the effect of encouraging state school students to apply rather than putting them off.  They could still apply to other colleges, of course.  Nobody is suggesting a system of segregation, with some colleges for the private schools and others for the rest.  There might actually be some benefit, analogous to the women’s colleges, in providing a space within elite institutions where state school students can be with other state school students.  Private school confidence is a real phenomenon, and it can be not only irritating but also detrimental to those who are trying to learn and live in an environment where it pervades the atmosphere.  Some state school pupils might value that, others not.  But that’s not the main point of the idea.  The aim would be to improve state school representation across the board, and to acknowledge that Oxbridge still has a serious problem.

B W-D: Do you think that physically dividing state and private school students might perpetuate the problem of inequality? 

First, I’m not suggesting separating them: if some colleges stopped recruiting from private schools, the idea is not that the others would stop recruiting from state schools – that would obviously be a disaster from the point of view of access.  And people see people from other colleges, too, so even those attending a state school only college would not be denied the privilege of mixing with the 7%, as it were.

Equally importantly, though, I think it’s a mistake to think of social equality as a matter of getting people from very privileged backgrounds to mix with people from more ordinary backgrounds.  What should motivate us are problems of disadvantage and access, not issues of relations between private and state educated people.  It’s not a matter of good relations.  And nor is ‘social mobility’ really the right way to think about it.  Social mobility assumes that there is a certain social and economic hierarchy, and the aim is to get people to move up and down within that hierarchy more freely and ‘fairly’.  A better way to look at it would be to acknowledge that the hierarchy itself is a problem.  And that places like Oxbridge are part of the apparatus that maintains it.  They may shuffle some people up and down within it – though not to the extent they would like to claim – but they don’t threaten the structure itself.

A little bit of social mobility is good for hierarchy.  It helps it persist, and to present itself as legitimate or ‘fair’.  But ‘too much’ social mobility, and the system is put under strain.  If, for example, the whole of Oxbridge decided to phase out private school students – almost unimaginable at present – many parents would stop sending their children to private schools, and they would have to close down or be nationalised.

B. W-D: You mention women’s colleges as a method of encouraging applications from a wider range of backgrounds, but do these college have as much of a role to play now that there is a more even balance between the genders? 

I think they still have an important role.  It’s important for some women – if not all – to have a space where they can be without men.  And it’s worth bearing in mind that the numbers of women and men in the Cambridge undergraduate population are still not quite equal, even despite the existence of three women-only colleges.

In the case of women, the main motive for having their own colleges is not making up the numbers at the undergraduate level, though.  It’s about creating an atmosphere where they have a better chance of flourishing and being successful, both during their undergraduate careers and afterward (there is an alarming drop-off in female representation at the post-grad level and beyond; something similar may well be true for lower socio-economic groups, especially given the costs of graduate study, but it is harder to get information on this since parental income is not assessed).

In the case of state school students, the reasons are parallel to some extent – this is where what I was saying about confidence levels is relevant.  People might benefit from being able to get away from that.  But it’s also much more clearly about representation.  State school candidates, especially those from comprehensives or working class backgrounds, just aren’t getting here.  That’s a difference – a break in the analogy – but hardly one which weakens the case for a state school only college.  On the contrary, it greatly strengthens it.  Access to their privately educated peers is not really what many state school students need.  They need better access to education, full stop.

B W-D: How have other methods of encouraging applications from state school students been successful/unsuccessful?  

A lot of people put a lot of hard work into access, including many student volunteers.  I don’t want to denigrate that.  But they are working within a broader framework that constrains how much difference they are able to make.  That’s why we have the current situation.  Access initiatives have been going on for many years, and we’re still in a situation where 7% of children go to private schools and at Oxbridge it’s 39% on average.  That’s still a huge disparity.  Unless we really believe that private school pupils are innately that much more talented, or that at 18 it’s already too late to remedy differences in advantage – and I don’t believe either of those things, from all my experience as a student and later as a teacher at Cambridge – then we have to do something that we’re not already doing.  It’s not enough to go to schools and encourage pupils to apply – much as that can be useful.  Bursaries can be useful too, but they’re also probably not enough – at least at their current levels.  Limiting admissions to state school candidates would cut the Gordian knot – it wouldn’t solve everything (grammar vs. comp, for example, or ethnic minority representation), but it would make a huge difference.  What is really needed, of course, are radical changes to society at large: for example, in my view, there shouldn’t be an elite tier of private schools in the first place.  But we have to consider what we can do from where we are.  What can Cambridge colleges do, from where they are now, given that what they are doing clearly isn’t enough? Here’s something they can do.

24 Sept 2014



Message from Tarak Barkawi:

'Dear CACHE Members:

'I want to bring your attention to a donation for a chair accepted by the University and POLIS in 2012. A foundation run by Wen Jiabao's daughter appointed by name a professor of Chinese Development Studies in POLIS. The foundation is a lawyer's PO Box in Bermuda called "Respect China" or "Praise China" depending on translation. The professor, Peter Nolan, had a personal chair at the Judge where he taught (and has written with) Wen Jiabao's son in law. 

'Here is some of the reporting:





'Here is my op-ed:


'Here is Professor Nolan:


'This matter is still being investigated by the Telegraph, the New York Times, and others and there are more revelations to come. ?If anyone can be of assistance in this matter, or knows facts not yet reported, please do get in touch with Peter Foster at the Telegraph (peter.foster@telegraph.co.uk?). He will respect confidentiality.' 

Tarak Barkawi
Department of International Relations
London School of Economics
Houghton St. 
London WC2A 2AE
Email: tarak.barkawi@gmail.com












Cambridge Academics Speak Out Against Gaza Blockade

Some 60 academics working at the University of Cambridge have signed a statement condemning the state of Israel’s blockade on Gaza:

We wish to add our voices to those of the Palestinian resistance in appealing for an immediate lifting of the blockade on Gaza. Beyond this most urgent demand, we also believe that no satisfactory end to this on-going humanitarian crisis can be achieved without the realisation of a more far-reaching justice for the Palestinian people, including the displaced refugees, and at the same time the realisation of a situation in which the inhabitants of historic Palestine, whatever their ethnicity, religion, or culture, whether they now live as Palestinians or as Israelis, are able to coexist under conditions of meaningful freedom and equality – equality of civic status, of respect, and of access to land and resources. We believe that a radical change is needed in order to achieve this, and that whatever the substance of this change, it cannot happen without an end to the violence perpetrated by the state of Israel against Palestinians, an end to the siege of Gaza and to the occupation, and an end to the discriminatory and dehumanising treatment of Palestinian citizens within Israel. Finally, as academics, we are concerned by the recent instances of victimisation of students and lecturers, inside and outside of Israel, for speaking out on this issue. We demand an end to the persecution of critics of Israel within academia, and pledge to lend our support to those targeted.


The full statement can be read here: http://campalestinestatement.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/statement-by-academics-at-university-of.html

The Hawking Vote: Abuse of Official Email Lists?

Once again, reports are emerging that senior members of the University administration and/or academic community have exploited university and/or college email lists to campaign for one side of Senate House vote. Complaints lodged with the University proctors have not resulted in any enquiry or action; instead, we are told that, because the votes are anonymous, senior colleagues cannot be said to be bullying, or anyway unduly influencing, their junior colleagues; and that junior members of staff should toughen up in the face of this pressure. So much I have been told.

These reports are worrying. It is true that Regent House votes are anonymous. But to argue that this licenses senior colleagues to bring pressure to bear on votes, with impunity, is wrong.

For of course a vote is not the only part of our important, internal democratic process. We also have policy statements, fly-sheets, and a healthy community of internal debate, in which we can engage our colleagues in discussion, and make arguments on either side for the importance of voting in a particular way. These discussions, and debates, are often very public, and we all count on other members of our community to preserve our shared intellectual liberties as we participate in them. Senior members of our community, who enjoy considerable prestige and power over appointments, administrative/teaching opportunities and burdens, leave arrangements, promotions, and funding, must be vigilant about how they use their voices. As ever, with power comes responsibility.

When a senior colleague uses an organ of university or college administration to disseminate information, a point of view, or indeed an instruction, she or he endows that communication with some degree of the university’s authority, and combines her or his power with the communication. At the very least, she or he muddies the waters between a personal and an official view (regardless of any statements made to the contrary). A junior colleague who speaks against this view or instruction is stepping out of line, or may fear that she or he is doing so.

Of course we should all respect the view of others, and be responsible for our own. We should all be so tough. But when careers and the means to live are on the line, or are seen to be on the line, who will speak out as they should? It’s not just the voting process that is at stake, but the free and fair circulation of reason.

Terms of the Hawking Professorship: a worrying threat to academic independence and equal pay


The ballot on the Stephen W. Hawking Professorship of Cosmology closes on Monday 24 February at 5 pm. Anyone who has a vote should use it. These plans will define the nature of donations to the University for generations to come, and they set two dangerous precedents. Firstly, in establishing a post-tenure review procedure, they pave the way for a wider use of such reviews, whether for professors or for all academic staff. Secondly, in pitching the salary of a post outside existing pay scales, they threaten to undermine the University-wide pay structure, which offers a modicum of fairness in a world increasingly governed by the logic of divide and rule.

The terms of the donation have been written into a deed that guarantees an outsized payment for the chair-holder—whilst ensuring that the University nonetheless pays a substantial part of her/his salary. After lengthy discussions, and taking advice from external lawyers, a divided Council acknowledged that pay-equality issues would be raised were the bonus payment to be channeled through the University. But such issues are supposedly circumvented by paying the top-up directly to the incumbent—which is what is now proposed. We are assured that the Trustees will take account of conventions for pay within the University, but that promise has absolutely no legal teeth.

The performance of the chair-holder will be reviewed after 7  and 12 years in post, when it can be extended to a maximum of 17 years. There are no other positions in the University with an equivalent requirement, excluding the Royal Society Research Professorships, where tenure is determined by an external institution. As well as making the position less desirable in itself, and threatening existing tenure arrangements, the time-limited nature of the Chair may create funding problems. Paying the ‘former’ Hawking Professors will strip the department of money that could be spent on new hires.

If we agree to the proposed arrangements for the Chair, the University’s donors will in future be free to ignore existing employment practices and to impose their own arrangements as a condition of their gifts. This is clearly unacceptable. So too is the threat to tenure, which will contribute to a climate in which academic staff are reluctant to undertake independent research and to express independent views for fear of reprisals. Hence the importance of a no vote in the current ballot.

Industrial Action: A Student Guide

Industrial Action: a student guide


In the run-up to this coming Thursday’s WHOLE-DAY STRIKE (an odd phrase to have to use, but which the recent, barely detectable ripple of two-hour strikes  has now made necessary), those headed for the picket lines will already be able to hear in their minds the echoes of the voices of the many students who swanned past them, awkward or seemingly oblivious, on the last two, three or four occasions on which the current dispute has moved UCU, Unite and Unison to industrial action.  For the most part, those who crossed picket lines were not ideologically opposed to unions, did not want to sanction the 13% real-terms pay cut which staff have suffered over the last four years, and did not wish to antagonise or depress their own lecturers.  Many, it seemed, simply had very little idea of what a strike actually is (which, to be fair, puts them in the same boat as the UCU leadership).

So, here is a rough guide to the strike.  Let us proceed by looking at the top five comments from students crossing picket lines on the occasion of the last WHOLE-DAY strike:

  1. “I do support the strike, but I have a lecture.”

The thing is, this is a little like saying: “I am a vegetarian, but I do eat bacon”. Or: “I’m not a racist, I just don’t like Indians”.  What it means to support a strike, for employees, is not to go to work for the duration of said strike.  For students, that includes not being complicit in the decision of others to break the strike (e.g. by attending lectures).  If strikes cause inconvenience or disruption, it’s necessary to point out that this is not some avoidable and unacceptable side-effect of the action: it is precisely how a strike is supposed to work.  This strategic infliction of inconvenience is often the best or only means that people have to protect their own and others’ interests and to re-establish some sort of control over their working environments.

Ideally, ‘supporting the strike’ means asking for lectures and seminars to be cancelled, and coming to the picket lines to show solidarity.  But at the very least, it means not crossing the picket lines.  If you do that, you don’t support the strike.  At least admit it.

  1. “Thanks!”

For what?

  1. “Sorry!”

No you’re not.

  1. “Maybe next time…”

Er, that’s not really how it works…

  1.  “But I want to get an education!”

Right.  This one requires a deep breath.  Aside from this cruel and unusual law of nature, which always produces this irresistible passion for learning on strike days, what exactly are you saying, when you say these words? Is the suggestion that lecturers who go on strike rather than suffer endless pay cuts don’t want their own students to get an education? Perhaps they went into academia for the money (oh no, wait…).  Or could it be that they want to educate under conditions where education and educators are properly valued, and are trying to make use of the only kind of leverage they have – the strategic withdrawal of labour – where other more ‘diplomatic’ means have demonstrably failed?

This is something in which students and staff have a common interest – even if the increasing tendency for the relationship between the two to be modelled as one between service-provider and consumer tends to obscure this simple point.  In the first place, it tends not to be good for students to be taught by people who are over-stretched, underpaid and generally pissed off.  And more generally, it is important to remember that students and staff alike are being screwed over by the same set of policies, imposed by the same set of people.  The cutting of wages, casualization and the proliferation of ‘zero hours’ contracts, the tripling of tuition fees and the cutting of funding for the arts cannot be seen as unrelated incidents.  They are all part of the one-and-the-same drive – an obsession of the current Government but totally lacking in democratic mandate, whether from the people directly involved or from the population at large – towards the privatisation of Higher Education, so as to expose the sector to ‘market forces’ and open the way for investors to make massive profits.

Twin reactionary initiatives make this process hard to resist: the criminalisation and increasingly draconian punishment of student protest, on the one hand; and, on the other, a handy law introduced by Mrs Thatcher which makes it illegal for trade unions officially to take strike action over anything other than the narrow self-interest of members, i.e. pay or conditions – whereupon, of course, such action is dismissed as ‘selfish’.

We have a choice.  We can either fall for this little trick, or we can recognise that staff and students actually share a deep set of interests, and support one another in the effort to oppose the forces that threaten to undermine them.  As one banner from the last action has it:

Students! The people cutting your lecturers’ wages are the same as those privatising your loans.  Don’t cross picket lines!

 don't be a scab




Priyamvada Gopal, UCU’s ‘Have a Lie-in’ Strike

‘UCU’s “Have a Lie-in” Strike’

by Priyamvada Gopal

If there is one cheerful observation to be made about the University and College Union’s (UCU) decision to call a series of two hour strikes (yes, you read that correctly) from next week, it is the quantity of water-cooler humour that it has generated in a profession not known for the art. One lecturer notes that he sometimes sits for longer on the toilet now; another academic has come up with the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Lunch Break’, which received the stirring counter cry: ‘All Power to the Sandwiches!’  A fourth wag observes that the ‘action’ will go down in history as ‘The Extended Fag Break Strike.’ A historian colleague of mine wonders how to get her students to notice that she’s on strike for the two hours she would normally spend answering emails and attending to paperwork. In the event that she does participate in the action, she’ll obviously make up the work at home in the evening or it’s her life that will become unmanageable, not that of her oblivious managers (who are probably already having a good belly laugh at the fearsome threat issued by UCU President Sally Hunt of two withdrawn hours). A research fellow in my department proposes to not think for two hours a day. If no one notices you striking, did you still strike?

And yet, of course, this is a singularly unfunny decision taken by the UCU’s leadership in the wake of a mandate given to it by the membership to escalate industrial action over fair pay and working conditions. It began last autumn with a series of one-day strikes coordinated with other unions including Unite and Unison, a heartening attempt at wider solidarity with those at the sharp end of ‘austerity’. Laughter isn’t always the best medicine—when it turns into derision from the sympathetic and sneering from the hostile, it can be actively harmful. For a union that has long been struggling for credibility and efficacy, this action isn’t going to be merely ‘pointless’, as is widely suggested, but a nail in the proverbial coffin. Far from pulling in the undecided and the disgruntled, this policy has already alienated existing activists and will undoubtedly lose it members who are still there only because they haven’t bothered to cancel their subscriptions. The action will also affect adjunct labour particularly adversely—those who are most vulnerable institutionally and least able to afford it financially will have to take the greatest risk by not turning up to teach some of the handful of hourly-paid classes they have managed to scrape together. We should think twice before piously condemning anyone who decides that this kind of gestural ‘action’ is not worth the high price they might have to pay.

Now, the idea of a two hour work stoppage is not in and of itself pointless.  Serial two hour strikes make sense on factory floors where a quarter-day’s cessation in production will make a direct dent in profits with cumulative effect, pinching where it hurts. However, labour solidarity across sectors does not mean that when it comes to industrial action one size fits all: there’s something rather embarrassing, a stylized silliness, in asking academics to pretend they are undertaking stoppages on some kind of imaginary assembly line.  When it comes to the most effective form of work stoppage in this sector, the closest thing to messing with the assembly line is also the one thing that makes university administrations and politicians sit up and worry: a refusal to mark the coursework and exams that are essential to the production of degrees. As a letter from the branch chair of the Institute of Education, University of London UCU notes, the two hour strikes, far from representing an escalation towards this drastic (and in my view, necessary) action, ‘amounts to a de-escalation of the strike’. Such a de-escalation, shamefully but not untypically argued for by National Executive Members at my own local branch at Cambridge—not an insitution renowned for challenging establishment policies— explicitly violates the mandate given to the UCU’s leadership to escalate over the year if faced with intransigence from employers. Should that not raise questions, not only about this policy’s viability, but about its legality?

There’s a notion abroad that such de-escalation is merely an honest blunder as opposed to systematic and predictable docility in keeping with what university administrations very much like. Managers in the HE sector are not, as is widely assumed, anti-union, so much as pro-weak unions. Weak and biddable unions are preferred by university managements because it enables them to keep up the pretence of participatory decision-making and legitimises the most outrageous transformations in the sector, including quiet privatisation. While we reluctantly and ritualistically participate in next week’s action—most of us with secure fulltime jobs not really missing a beat unless we happen to be teaching at those specific times—we need to start asking some very tough questions about the direction this union is headed. What should we do in the face of a union leadership that is clearly retrograde, accommodating of employers and disregarding of members, and, above all, lacking in an ethical and strategic vision? How do we stop enabling their foolishness and malign complicity in a regime that is eroding every hard-fought trade union gain determinedly and single-mindedly? We are at a turning point in the history of this union: if these questions are not asked, fought over and resolved, the conflagration will be one that overtakes us by stealth. The Extended Fag Break will turn into the cigarette which set the bed alight while we fell asleep at the headboard.