Rhodes Must Fall – should Oxford fall too?

What does the crucial campaign about Cecil Rhodes mean for fighting for alternative structures and ways of doing higher education.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford has been one of the most important and vocal student campaigns of this academic year. This morning it forced a public response from the chancellor of the University of Oxford. The English elite is being forced to confront its colonial legacy and it doesn’t like it. Little surprise given that it strikes at the very heart of an institution which is integral to maintaining the legitimacy and domination of the English elite.

Lord Patten, Chancellor at Oxford asked where would it stop if we were to give in to the group and remove the statue. So many buildings housing major institutions of the British establishment were built with the ill-gotten, blood-soaked funds of the British Empire. The fact that it has sparked such media uproar on the right and the liberal left, reflects how little debate there has been about the historical legacy of the British empire. There has never truly been any Vergangenheitsbewältigung, coming to terms with the past, of the sort that happened in the two Germanies and continues in the unified state, since 1945. Hopefully with this upsurge in activism which challenges the left on issues of race as well as the establishment and greater discussion of Britain’s colonial legacy, this will begin to change.

For higher education, and the British elite the debate has opened up a can of worms. From an institutional perspective, it asks serious questions of the role of these universities. Above all, it makes us see how colonialism is woven into the physical fabric, the very architecture of our universities. The expansion and reform of Oxford and Cambridge in the late 19th century was reliant, directly or indirectly, on money from the Empire.

More than that, Oxbridge taught generations of colonial administrators and continues to train national and international elites who are deeply implicated in new forms of oppression. This asks all sorts of questions of the British establishment which in all honesty, it has no good answers to. Beyond this confrontation about the past, though this campaign is also about curriculum and everyday treatment of students of colour, what does Rhodes Must Fall Oxford mean for the structure of UK higher education as a whole?

 If there is an area where questions[1] could be asked of the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign from the left, then I think is in relation to how issues of race at Oxford differ from those elsewhere in British higher education. The University of Oxford has serious issues with how it treats students of colour – this has been obvious throughout the RMF Oxford campaign but was also clear beforehand. Educational institutions of the British elite have long and largely unacknowledged or forgotten histories of racism, with Eton College being a case in point.

Within the UK however, the biggest racial divide in higher education is between the Russell Group and the post-1992 sector. Ethnic diversity in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of elite institutions (London, Oxford and Cambridge) actually got worse between 2006 and 2010, when there were nearly 10 times as many black students in post-1992 universities than at these universities at the apex of the English system.

This situation is changing and organisations exist which deliberately, but I would argue problematically, seek to challenge this racial divide:

Rare is passionate about creating a more equal society. We believe that if more black people get in to Oxbridge, more black people will reach the top of our society. Target Oxbridge is our contribution to making that happen.

The problem here is that we want a society where universities are more open, less racist and yes clearly that means more students of colour at Oxford. But surely we do not want to simply replace a largely white, male elite with an elite which has more people of colour, women and LGTBQ individuals. The discourse of organisation Rare seems to imply simply a more diverse elite. In the here and now and speaking pragmatically this matters, but it is not enough. We want to push beyond this, we have to push beyond this otherwise our activism is nothing but the re-legitimizing of the status quo where an elitist form of higher education reproduces a more acceptable hierarchical social structure.

It might seem like these questions are not relevant to a campaign which has as its focus the colonial legacy and symbols of this which adorn institutions of the British elite. My question, and it is a friendly one, is if those symbols are removed (and they must be) and the curriculum was changed, what type of higher education system would we be left with? The institutional hierarchy would still be there – Oxford would still be an institution of the elite, London Metropolitan University, if it survives the current cuts, would still be dominated by local, first-generation students of colour/working-class students. We want a university which is de-colonised and anti-sexist. But we also want a university which do not have as a central function the creation of elites.

The violence of a symbol is powerful, especially in a country which does so little to acknowledge its colonial past. But the University of Oxford is fundamentally a site of symbolic violence – it has been the site of the creation of national and international elites for hundreds of years. The attraction of Oxford and Cambridge to some international students is not only as centres of knowledge – like the elite ‘public’ schools[2] that feed into them, they represent the deep ossification and persistence of the British elite. This south-eastern, pseudo-aristocratic, now finance-led class has long dominated British society and, with waning influence, parts of the rest of the world. The violence is silent and these institutions find legitimation through the dreamy spires image – fairy-tale medieval places of learning, where Rhodes and others like him have been, until now, invisible.

Making Rhodes visible as a sign of colonial and racial oppression has to be simultaneously wedded to making the classed violence of Oxbridge visible too. We have to fight for a new form of higher education and this means fusing our struggles for a university which is not colonial and racist, capitalist, classist or sexist. Centres of knowledge must exist but do we ultimately wish to study in institutions which perpetuate these different forms of violence?

Beyond Rhodes Must Fall, the real question we have to ask is, should Oxford fall too?

[1] I used this term in the loosest sense, this is not about criticism rather about adding to the debate.

[2] These are private fee-paying schools which are referred to as ‘public schools’ in British English.

Why we need a radical proposal for an alternative (higher) education system – now more than ever.

I argue that we need a detailed alternative for what we want higher education to look like. We need to learn from past mistakes and fuse our struggles together in a systematic argument for a different kind of university.

The HE Green Paper has shaken the higher education sector, and when the consultation closes on January 15th the legislation that will likely follow will deepen the power of market processes within the system. What it makes clear is that the fee rise to £9000 was only a stepping stone. For those institutions that can show sufficient ‘widening participation’ efforts and NSS scores, fee rises beyond £9k will be possible.

We have to remember that the path for this was laid out not by the Coalition government but by the New Labour years which came before. It was Blair that introduced fees, increased them to £3000 and ordered the Browne Review into HE finance. Labour paved the way for these changes, but Corbyn’s leadership gives us – all of us who work or learn in our universities – a chance to set Labour’s HE policy in the right direction. We need to change Labour’s HE policy, not just the stance of the leadership. Their commitment to removing fees is a phenomenal start, but we need to go much further and deeper in arguing for a system of universities which benefits everyone.

Since Corbyn’s election there have been a few articles thinking about what a ‘comprehensive university’ might look like.[1] In the UK context, the term comes from a book written in 1972 by Robin Pedley, one of the key reformers behind the earlier movement for comprehensive school reform. Pedley posed this alternative model in opposition to the binary system which split the polytechnics with their working-class intakes and more vocational courses, from the older universities which remained bastions of ‘academic study’ and reproduction of middle-class status. In its place, he proposed a model which would bring together Further Education Colleges, Polytechnics and Universities under one collegiate but democratic governance structure in each city or town. This would end hierarchies of prestige, wealth and snobbery and allow much greater movement of students between different institutions.

The system of higher education is now very different, but the binary division along lines of race and class remains. It is still the ‘old’ universities which are dominated by the white middle class and the ‘new’ post-1992 universities, the former polytechnics, which are racially and socio-economically diverse. In his book, Pedley was critical of the decision of Tony Crosland, Labour education minister under Wilson in the 1960s, to implement the conservative proposals for expanding universities outlined in the 1963 Robbins Report on Higher Education.

A more radical alternative was never even considered. Instead Crosland, opted to maintain the political consensus, which expanded higher education but deepened inequalities between institutions. It is exactly here that we have to learn not to repeat past mistakes when it comes to Labour, ‘comprehensives’ and education policy more broadly. This means thinking about what we mean by ‘comprehensive’ and posing a truly radical and modern alternative.

Comprehensive schools were arguably the most radical education reform of the 21st century. Ending selection at 11 was a major defeat for an ideology of educational selection which had held sway in English educational politics since the late 19th century. But the comprehensive school reform of the 1960s did not end gendered, classed or racial forms of disadvantage perpetuated by the education system. New forms of inequalities arose, based particularly around 16 as the new point of academic selection and catchment areas as a means of cheating the system. One radical critique of Labour’s post-war education policy came from those based at Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Writing in 1989, Richard Johnson criticised the tendency to defend education ‘as it is’ against neo-liberal attacks, to make short-term ‘tactical’ responses (as Crosland did) with the broader long-term hope that through piecemeal reform, gradual social progress could be made through education. This progress has no doubt been significant, but it has also been so grindingly slow and weak that generation after generation are being educated in a system which divides us much more than it unites us.

The crux of Johnson’s critique was that this kind of short-term thinking blocks the development of an alternative which should be just as radical as the neoliberal education reforms of the 1980s. In his words:

It is not enough to assert the value of pre-Thatcher public education, or to move on to Thatcherite ground, finding some socialist virtues in the market. We need a post-Thatcher version.

New Labour tried the middle option, and for universities (and schools) it consolidated the direction of travel which led us to the dead end where we now find ourselves. We – students, lecturers, cleaners, admin staff – now have no option but to stand and fight, but we must do so clinically and around an organised structural programme for long-term change in higher education.

The comprehensive university is a useful term which we should take and transform to meet our own needs. Yes, we need to abolish the hierarchical system of institutions which creates and reflects sexist, racist and classist structures on the employment market. But we also need to go beyond this – calls to liberate our curriculum, and the campaign to remove racist colonial figures, like Cecil Rhodes, from our universities are important. We need to call for a system which does it all – we don’t want to study at a university which is free from racist symbols but which remains elitist and perpetuates class hierarchy; we don’t want to study in a non-hierarchical system of institutions where women and LGBT students still face harassment. These struggles have to be welded into one.

Over the next five years we will organise to resist the Teaching Education Framework, the Prevent programme and potential fee rises beyond £9k. But we also need to organise, eyes-wide-open, for a thorough and clinical political alternative for HE which we can press for within the Labour party. If the history of comprehensives and Labour’s education policy tells us one thing, it is that we cannot trust Labour to come up with an alternative which is as radical as we need it to be.

We need our own HE Green Paper and it should have all the detail and sharp political implications of a Browne Review of the left. Past radical reforms of education, from the right as well as the left, should give us hope that structural change is achievable. Short-term struggles are necessary, but we cannot keep just fighting piecemeal when what we need is systemic change.

Abolishing fees is only the start and we can, and we will, win.


[1] I ran a workshop on the idea at the NCAFC winter conference in Sheffield in December and you can see the slides here.