How Rising London Rents are Funding Elite Private Schools

This article was originally published by Novara Media here.

Saturday saw the culmination of an incredibly successful year for the rent strike at University College London rent strike with a protest during an open day. The campaign has served to highlight the indifference of university management to the consequences of increased housing costs and has rapidly spread to other campuses.

As the rent strikers have shown, increased accommodation costs for students have been passed onto investment banks in China and the Netherlands through the management corporation, the University Partnership Programme (UPP). Alongside this story of global capital is a very British story of elite educational institutions profiting from raising rents on land they have owned for centuries.

Just round the corner from UCL, UPP has also been involved with refurbishing an old block of University of London student accommodation. From September, the Cartwright Halls will be re-opened – charging £189 per week for the cheapest room, with the most expensive costing £258. In 2012-13, the last year before refurbishment, it was still possible to share a room costing just £129 per week but this budget option no longer exists.

When the University of London began redevelopment of the halls, managers also signed a new lease on the land in July 2014. Like many London universities, the University of London does not actually own the land on which its buildings sit. Renewing the lease cost the university £17.5m, and the new 125 year lease involves an increased annual rent of £100k a year.

But where is this money going?

The land beneath Cartwright Halls belongs to the Sir Andrew Judd Foundation. Andrew Judde was a 16th century merchant who eventually became Lord Mayor of London in 1550. He used this wealth – much of it earned through trade abroad – to buy land in the City of London and St Pancras. When he died in 1558 he left this land as an endowment to fund a school in Tonbridge where he was born. His foundation, with an endowment now worth £82m, primarily serves to fund this school. Tonbridge School is now an elite private boys’ school costing £36,288 per year for boarding students, this year winning 31 Oxbridge offers.

The extortionate rents paid by students at Cartwright Halls will not only prove unaffordable to many but will actively strengthen elitist education. As a result of the deal, the school will receive over £5.5m from the Judd Foundation towards rebuilding Tonbridge School over the next five years. Under the somewhat ironic title of ‘excellence for all’, this rebuilding masterplan includes the refurbishment of the ‘Old Big School’ building into an art gallery, new ‘Olympic standard’ sports facilities costing £2m, and a new library (which contains 23,000 books) costing nearly £7m.

In contrast, state schools saw budgets for rebuilding and repairs cut by 34% under the last government.

Tonbridge School is far from alone in profiting from land ownership in central London. If you have ever bought a pint at The Lamb pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street you have indirectly funded Rugby School, which owns the whole street. Eton – with the largest endowment of any school in the UK – holds stocks and shares worth £298m and property worth a further £80m, having developed a whole suburban estate in the late 19th century. Eton’s landed wealth is dwarfed by the staggering property portfolio of Christ’s Hospital School, which is worth £142m. Until compulsory purchase in 1949, St Paul’s Boys School was also funded by the rents of working-class Londoners in Stepney. The history of landed wealth and elite schools is very ugly indeed.

These elite educational institutions – to which must of course be added the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge with their own huge endowed wealth – serve not only to produce a form of educational apartheid but are actively involved in property development and market speculation, with utter indifference to the consequences. These schools and universities have educated the imperial, British and global elite for literally centuries with all the violence that has entailed. Of course, there are caveats – this is not a glib attack on everyone who was privately educated and indeed, not all private schools share in the same wealth as these elite institutions.

The point here is that there is a deep historical and structural underpinning to many of the battles that we face. The UCL rent strike has been a struggle for affordable accommodation and is the tip of iceberg of the much broader housing crisis in London for young people. For students, this also speaks to issues of ‘access’ to education. When Andrew Grainger, UCL’s director of estates, declared: “Some people simply cannot afford to study in London and that is a fact of life” he was simply expressing the reality of elite universities and schools which pay lip service to widening participation and bursary access. Their primary social function remains the preservation of upper middle-class status, and the percentage of students in the Russell Group attending private school has remained static at around 25% since 2002 and is far higher in the more elite institutions.

So the struggle against extortionate rents in universities and in the housing market is also a struggle against the economic and cultural power of elite forms of education. These inequalities pre-date neoliberalism and are part of the deep-rooted elite infrastructure which supports and reproduces the English state. The struggle for affordable housing – in and outside the university – is also ultimately the struggle against elite schools and universities which need to be utterly and profoundly transformed, and their cultural and economic power abolished.

This transformation can only come as part of a broader struggle and shift of power within society. ‘Excellence for all’ must not be a sick joke but a political reality. Let us be clear – none of this is the ‘politics of envy’ – all we are saying is that we have had enough. The domination of society by a narrowly-educated elite has no justification, not now and not ever. It must end. To paraphrase that great imaginary British Labour leader Harry Perkins: “We are going to abolish second class education; I think everyone is first class, don’t you?”


Workers’ rights, migration and some necessary realism – why another Europe is (still) possible

Last Saturday, Another Europe is Possible held a day of workshops on the left-wing case to remain in the EU. It was also my dad’s birthday. Pulling these two together, I argue the left case to vote in to build a European alternative.

It was my dad’s 67th birthday at the weekend. He died of lung cancer four years ago from being exposed to asbestos as a builder in the 1970s. I’m not the only one to have lost a parent (or both) and of course I won’t be the last. As I’ve posted before, he spent his working life fighting for workers’ health in the workplace – steelworkers and miners to begin with but as time went on working with cleaners and other night workers in hospitals, teachers with stress and office workers. He was an internationalist within Europe and beyond, part of a network spanning the USA, India and China in particular.

At the European level he worked with the European Trades Union Institute and others to lobby and campaign for better health and safety legislation. He was a socialist and he knew it wasn’t revolutionary work but it concretely acted to protect workers’ health in Europe. He was of course, not supportive of a neo-liberal Europe, but he saw the possibility of a radical alternative and knew that there were small, valuable victories that could be won within the EU. Quitting the EU will empirically mean that workers’ rights to health at work will get worse and I’m as sure as I can be that he would have been opposed to leaving.

One of the arguments that I find problematic about the radical left case for leaving is that it will weaken global capitalism and benefit the Global South by proxy in weakening the EU. Empirically in the short term there will undoubtedly be a crisis both for the British political elite (quite capable of destroying itself on its own as we have seen over the last few weeks) and for the EU, but in the medium to long term, a few banks will move to Frankfurt and that will be that. Germany and France will not let the EU fall apart completely. Within the UK, none of these arguments will gain any kind of political traction on the doorstep whatsoever. There are not the conditions for a “lexit” case to gain any kind of public attention or sympathy. Far less an argument about the Global South couched in theoretical terms that many voters will not understand, much less have sympathy for.

I’m an internationalist – there is no struggle which is not about overcoming the major economic division between North and South, or that is not intersectional and just keeps on banging on about class. But I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and somehow turn substantial anti-migrant, sexist public sentiment into altermondialiste ultra-leftism – we need to start with where people are at. That also means recognising our political strength within any particular situation. Weakening the structure of capitalism globally will not strengthen the left nationally or internationally. At a local level a vote to leave will undoubtedly strengthen xenophobic, anti-migrant sentiment even if it weakens the current leadership of the Conservative party. Within Europe, Brexit would strengthen racist right-wing populist parties who are most opposed to the open migration policy which is so desperately needed. How this would benefit the millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, I don’t know. Fortress Europe is brutal and horrific, but it does not follow that a weakened EU would change this predicament.

There is no quick route to building up a radical left movement to the global imperialist, capitalist system we currently have or the nasty neoliberal state at a national level. The EU referendum is not a political opportunity for radical left debate about the global economy – it just isn’t. This debate is not being led by an insurgent party to the left of Labour which is causing Labour political problems in their heartland – it has been forced by UKIP manipulating Tory right-wingers and working class alienation, disillusionment and decades (if not centuries) of disinvestment by the British state.

Something which I find deeply frustrating is that fighting for empirical improvements in workers’ right at an EU level is dismissed by autonomist ultra-left figures as reformist. Fighting within existing structures does not mean that we support them. It is a recognition that we are not powerful enough to overcome them right now and that alongside and through fighting smaller battles, we build for a radical alternative.

For me, my dad and his broader generation taught me the importance of the long march through the institutions – that 1970s New Left strategy which clearly has not succeeded but remains politically valuable. At a local level, within our own workplaces, I don’t see that we have any other choice but to be in and against the state or whatever fragmented public or private institution we find ourselves working for. It might not be politically sexy to fight for EU regulation of vibrations or noise or the use of chemicals at work, it is clearly not the sum total of what we want, but it matters.

There are tangible reasons why in a UK context specifically, leaving the EU will likely push us towards a more market-oriented economy with fewer employment protections and even more xenophobic migration controls. Recognizing that fact does not mean we turn away from building solidarity with people in the Global South and Southern Europe who have borne the brunt of EU economic policy. There is no short-cut to building an international alternative to current European and global economic system. Voting to leave and the temporary crisis in capitalism it would bring about will not somehow magically create the movement we need. In the UK it would do the opposite by strengthening the most racist elements of the mainstream political right, not to mention entrenching Conservative political control in England if Scottish independence followed. It would also bolster right-wing anti-EU sentiment across Europe, strengthening xenophobic political parties at precisely the moment when a radical, open migration policy is needed.

Building an alternative Europe is a much longer, slower task, but it will not be made easier by leaving.

Another Europe is Possible is the left campaign to remain in the EU.

Why they don’t give a shit: the chronic indifference of the South-Eastern elite to industry


In an excellent dissection of the Conservative party’s failure to offer the steelworkers of Port Talbot realistic long-term state support, Paul Mason briefly referred to the education of large swathes of the political elite:

Not giving a shit — about industries, jobs or social consequences — is at the heart of the ideology the political elite has learned since they were at private school.

This is the soft-end of the critique – clearly the steel crisis is not being caused by the private school education of much of the Conservative cabinet, it is the shifting structures of the global economy which are at work. However, the role of private schools is not just important in thinking about fostering a particular attitude of indifference. Elite, mostly private education plays a deeper, more structural role in British, and especially English, society, which is central to understanding the structures of capitalism in Britain. This is not simply ‘a textbook lesson in neoliberalism’, the tendencies underlying the disinterest in industry in particular have much longer historical roots.

With a famous series of articles in the mid-1960s, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn delivered a decisive critique of British capitalism. They presented a systematic historical argument about how the social structure of the UK developed, noting the fusion between the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy as the key development in preventing conflict within the ruling class and limiting direct bourgeois political control. Within this, brief mention was made of the importance of the public schools in fusing the rising industrial bourgeoisie, the expanding professional middle classes and the aristocracy around the pseudo-aristocratic ideal of the ‘gentleman’.

In fact in their work, an analysis of the nascent public school system of the late 19th century plays only a relatively minor role. It was the work of historian W.D. Rubinstein who really ironed out the creases in the Anderson-Nairn understanding of the British elite[1] and the geography of Britain’s class structure. He showed how middle-class incomes over the 19th century became increasingly concentrated on the South-East – exactly where the majority of private schools were founded and remain. More importantly for the case of the Port Talbot steelworkers, his analysis showed how the wealthiest men of the 19th century overwhelmingly made their fortunes through banking and commerce and lived in or around London. The provincial industrial bourgeoisie were relatively speaking, poorer, lived further from the centre of political and economic power and were culturally disinclined towards sending their sons to the Anglican boarding schools of the South-East.

London and its Home Counties environs have long been the place of residence for Britain’s elites and it remains so in the 21st century. As education became increasingly important for accessing professional employment over the 19th century, this necessitated the creation of an educational infrastructure of elite social reproduction. The reform of Oxford and Cambridge and the older public schools in the late 19th century meant the preservation of a pseudo-aristocratic heritage within education which remains powerful today.

One famous interpretation of British economic malaise, saw this apparently anti-business educational culture as at the heart of the decline of the UK economy, an argument which gained traction amongst Thatcher’s Conservative government. Rubinstein’s rebutted the ‘Wiener thesis’ firmly, and described how public schools fostered links with the most ‘dynamic’ areas of the British economy. Already by the late 19th century, the core source of wealth for British elites and the major area of economic development was concentrated on the City of London and this trend increased over the first half of the 20th century.

As finance grew in importance, students from the public schools increasingly opted to go into finance. Eton in particular developed intense links with the City. The overlap between land-ownership and City finance grew as landed estates declined in value and the wealth exchanged grew. Oxbridge and the public schools formed an increasingly important part of this nexus of elites focussed on the South-East of England, or what Tom Nairn called ‘the Crown Heartland’. This was ‘a Southern-lowland hegemonic bloc uniting an hereditary élite to the central processing block of commercial and financial capital.’ Within England and by proxy, through the continuing political power of Westminster, it is this shifting but persistent social and economic constellation who dominate British politics, economy and culture.

The public schools, and, it must be said, increasingly a small number of elite state schools, are the first institutional stage in what must be understood as a broader infrastructure of elite power, with Oxbridge, the City and Westminster being its other obvious institutional bases. It is not the curricular emphasis of the public schools which creates a bias towards finance within the British economy, it is their role within a nexus of economic, cultural and political power concentrated on South-East England and the fact that generations of their alumnae have gone on to work in these central institutions of the British state.

More than any other Conservative politician, Cameron himself embodies this Anderson-Nairn-Rubinstein understanding of the British ruling class. He comes from a family which has worked in the City for generations, married into minor aristocracy over several generations (both himself and his father) and has sent its sons to Eton from the late 19th century (which could be behind the apparent decision to send his son to prep school). Samantha Cameron may have family with strong aristocratic Yorkshire-Lincolnshire connections, but she grew up and went to school in the South-East of England.

Why though does any of this matter for the steelworkers of Port Talbot?

The ‘political ideology’ of the public schools is not anti-industry per se. Rather it forms part of a broader institutional pattern within the British ruling classes. Post-war, state-owned industry did not challenge the hegemonic position of the City of London over British economic life any more than industry did during the 19th century. This tendency of the south-eastern elite to be largely indifferent to the fate of industry predates neoliberalism. For certain strata of the elite, the City has been integral to their personal and broader class interests for generations.

Whilst the ownership of the Port Talbot mills by Tata, an Indian multinational, reveal the depth of changes to the British and global economy, the response of the Conservatives is partly driven by this path-dependent set of interests aligned with this socio-cultural south-eastern elite. These interests are deeply historical and relate to the long-term orientation of the British economy. Neo-liberalism gave this a new form and mode of operation but it did so within the context of an existing geography of class and economic power which was structurally indifferent to provincial industry.

Moving away from this model would involve a seismic shift within the British economy and society. It would involve acknowledging the real geographical political division within the UK is between the Crown Heartland elite and the rest of the country. The steelworkers of Lanarkshire, Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, just like the rest of us, have more in common than what divides us.


[1] There are clearly important distinctions to be made in terms of the history of Irish, Scottish and Welsh elites which I can’t do justice to here. I refer to British elites concentrated on London as these groups were dominant within the British ruling class as a whole but that is not to say that there are not distinctive national histories as well.








How to fight the right on education, housing and aspiration – and win


The exchange at Prime Minister’s Questions in the middle of January revealed how easy it is for Cameron to bat away arguments about the unfairness of cutting nursing bursaries and maintenance grants. Corbyn came across strongly at the end of his questions with his line of questioning with his points on nursing but Cameron’s lines about ‘uncapping aspiration’ and his argument about economic security at the end were strong and politically damaging.


Here’s a few Corbyn could use in reply: the new funding system is a policy of broken aspiration, lifetime debt and economic hypocrisy. Taking these last two points first, for literally millions of young people the Tories are the party of deficit-makers. For a party that continues to position itself on the economy in relation to government debt, they are strangely insistent on indebting an entire generation up to the eye-balls. This contradiction should be exploited politically and Labour quite simply never has.


On the issue of aspiration, picking out teachers and nurses is symbolically important: both of these are careers which became associated with upward social mobility over the 20th century. But it isn’t enough to talk about the aspiration of safe Labour voters. The greatest political weakness of the Conservative party is the economic vulnerability of the working lower-middle class which their higher education reforms are undoubtedly damaging. Poorer students will now graduate with an average of £12,500 more debt than their wealthier peers. This coincides with the broader changes in the housing market which has seen house ownership and mortgage rates fall since the financial crisis, across all income quintiles and especially for the bottom 60% of households. Fundamentally the aspiration to owner-occupancy increasingly difficult if not impossible for more and more people. Aspiration based around these norms is increasingly vulnerable – it is at least breaking if not broken.


Labour desperately needs to appeal to this demographic but this has to go beyond an electoral strategy. Having soundbites that people understand that we can repeat over and over again matters. But it matters not for the cynical reasons of the Conservatives – what we are engaged in is a struggle to transform the political ‘common sense’ of people and we need to build a movement which can do this. We are trying to challenge the long-term occupancy of power – not just in a political sense but in the deep transformative way that Thatcher shifted English society and culture rightwards. For the first time in my lifetime there is just the possibility that the left could move onto the front foot.


By talking about education and housing we pick away at two areas which are now far more vulnerable areas of social policy for the Conservatives. In these circumstances, social mobility itself as it has been conceived of, i.e. the fair chance through education of free upward (never downward) movement, is politically vulnerable. In an immediate sense, there is a clear tilting of the scales against the poorest and most debt-averse students. But this crisis runs far deeper.


A generation of more affluent though not rich young people, and, let us not forget this essential political point, their parents, are facing the serious likelihood of serious difficulties accessing the housing market combined with a lifetime of debt repayment. Conservative housing policy will deepen social and racial cleansing of inner-city housing, but it does so in a desperate attempt to prop-up middle-class first-time buyers. The trick for Labour is to come up with a policy which speaks to that middle-class anxiety, not because they are our priority but because their status represents the security that many aspire to. We shouldn’t reject that as bourgeois, we should acknowledge that this is the language of the everyday life that people want.


There is a fundamental need for a rigorously thought-out political programme from Labour which highlights these weaknesses, critiques the old models and puts something new in their place. Just as McDonnell announced with reference to cooperative models of worker ownership, ‘we cannot simply turn the clock back’ to old forms of public ownership. The same is true in higher education and we need a systematic programme for a radical alternative to back up the soundbites.


If as Stuart Hall argued, drawing on Gramsci, ‘every crisis is also a moment of reconstruction; that there is no destruction which is not, also, reconstruction’ then we have to make sure we win the political argument of the current crisis. This is not just an economic crisis – the crises within education and housing are an opportunity to re-shape not only the political agenda but the deeper social and cultural assumptions which are rapidly being shown to be contradictory. Cameron and the old hegemony of the new right is vulnerable and, with Corbyn as leader, there is an opening for an offensive from the left.

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.


Free education, the middle classes and a radical education policy – a class analysis for Corbyn and the student left

I wrote this for Novara FM – you can read the final version on their site here, this is an unedited and slightly longer piece which fleshes out some of the points a little more.

Corbyn’s election has transformed the political landscape for the left and given a new sense of optimism and importance to the free education demo on the 4th November. Removing tuition fees completely is a massive potential vote winner for Corbyn amongst young people and should provide a key rallying point in 2020. However, the pseudo-permanent elephant in the room in talking about higher education is class. I say this not because gender and race do not matter in accessing education (they do and, ultimately, they cannot be understood separately), but because politically the dominance of the, primarily, white and male middle-class over higher education goes unaddressed and we need to tackle it head on. This matters for the student left in how we formulate our demands and it matters for Corbyn both electorally and crucially in the driving ideology which underpins a radical left approach to education. Here’s the problem and some proposals in five steps.

  1. When it comes to free education, the (student) left doesn’t talk about HE as a middle-class dominated domain

The most prestigious forms of higher education remain dominated by, and culturally geared towards, the middle classes. Nothing new here then, but politically this matters. The student left shies away from talking about this, something which comes out in that powerful but anachronistic slogan/chant – “Education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes.” Education in its state organized form, is neither the preserve of the ruling class, nor has it ever really been defined or created by or for the working classes. It is also already a mass system (participation is now close to the 50% target, 47% of 17-30 year olds in 2013-14, and it’s actually over 50% for young women) that Blair set back in 1999.  This is a system which is riven fact by a de facto binary class division with working class students overwhelmingly concentrated in the former polytechnics: the binary system of higher education set out by Robbins in 1963 is, in truth, alive and well. Higher education, and state education more generally, has been a central domain for advancement into white collar middle-class employment and then increasingly ensuring that people’s children achieved the same status. It is that intergenerational link which is increasingly under threat and here there is political hay to be made.

  1. The weakness of the middle class right now is politically powerful and free education counts

Free education is a policy which, pre-election at least, actually had relatively little support amongst the general public (though note the support for grants and loans is different…). This needs to be acknowledged and examined but is probably misleading about the political potential of free education as a policy. If we look at how incomes have developed across different social classes over the past 30 years, what we see is a growing gap between the managerial and higher professional class and the rest: the top-end of the middle class is pulling away from lower-level professionals. A lot of the current policy coming out of Cameron-Osborne HQ is designed to prop up middle-class social reproduction – look at the announcement on housing last week. Under the last government the academies programme was quietly used to convert private schools which were suffering financially post-crisis, private school use has also fallen across the North.

The latter point might seem like an obscure point, but it isn’t: the flip-side of these policies is the Tory awareness of the vulnerability of the middle class. If that is true, then, whatever the survey data say about support for fees, there is serious scope to manipulate these anxieties from the left and not simply from the right. Moreover, these are not just anxieties: if wage inequalities between Piketty’s ‘super-managers’ and the rest of us continue to grow there are political problems ahead for the Conservatives. The battle to be had is about framing, the Tories know this and Cameron taking up the ‘good right’ rhetoric last week indicates both a response to Corbyn and an acknowledgement of the deep fissures which run right across the British socio-economic structure.   We need to undermine this by calling their bluff, but also by putting forward an alternative which deals with some of the same anxieties. Free education should be one plank in allowing us to do just that.

  1. Manipulating “middle class” aspirations/anxieties whilst retaining a deeper critique of education as a culturally elitist and classist set of structures

Let me be frank, I am not saying the middle class should (or would) be the main beneficiaries of a free education policy but these insecurities are there to be played on. In Chicago the fight against Charter School reform and associated gentrification has become a multi-racial and multi-class issue, which entails treading a very careful path. Including the white middle class had to be done in such a way that they do not take control – it must not become a campaign of privilege, but it is crucial to acknowledge that power means sitting around one table. In the UK, when educational reform has been at its most radical it has taken a path which has taken advantage of working and middle class dissatisfaction to push for major reform. Ending selection at 11 through the intensely problematic but nevertheless radical move towards comprehensive schooling was one key example of this. In doing this though, we need absolute clarity about the need to challenge the exclusionary and ultimately violent nature of middle class control over educational norms. We don’t want to embed middle-class social reproduction, ultimately we want to abolish it, and to do this we need to go beyond talking about funding. Selina Todd has talked about turning Oxford into a comprehensive: this is where we need to start from and this is where we need to push. Attempts at educational reform which leave the elite untouched will fail. Oxbridge (and to a lesser extent the Russell Group) provide so much of the norms surrounding what counts and matters about learning. These judgements are flawed and arbitrary. There is nothing more violent than imposing forms of culture and knowledge of associated with an elite and building an education system which deliberately and systematically classifies people on the basis of this.

  1. Fighting anti-reformist reforms and subverting old political assumptions

Free education needs to be a rallying call for a long-term, deep critique of education policy. What we are really learning to do here, is to fight for anti-reformist reforms and this requires a new language. Fighting the government’s re-booted discourse on social mobility is a key site for the kind of battle we face. Individual aspiration is, as I have said elsewhere, a blind alley for the left. Social mobility structurally (I’m not talking about the individual level) is not a good thing – it is predicated on accepting and, crucially, legitimizing inequality. If we want to use it as a term we need to transform its meaning. We need a to create a language of collective ‘aspiration’ and we need to underline that this means attacking entrenched privilege at the top, not just ‘compensatory’ measures which aim to ‘improve’ the educational attainment of the working classes and people of colour. The real battle in education is about institutional hierarchy and how that combines with curriculum to reproduce social structures. What we define as ‘knowledge’ and learning is embedded in an institutional hierarchy which primarily serves to reproduce class, racial and gender inequalities on the employment market.

  1. Free education and beyond: what we are asking for is life

And this brings us back to where we started – because the position of many on the student left, including myself, is as products of this educational system built on middle-class cultural norms and practices about learning. It is hard to see how alien and exclusionary higher education is from the position of someone who is in the second or third generation of going to university. For the 50% of people who still aren’t going to university before they’re 30, and it is mostly men, we need an alternative. The student left may be institutionally weak (though stronger than for a long time!), but they’re a whole lot stronger than young people in work, apprenticeships and other training schemes. We want grants and free education – but fundamentally what we are asking for is life – we want a fully-funded transition from childhood to an autonomous, (fully-)automated luxurious livelihood. Alongside our call for free education must be a vocational alternative which is fully-funded and offers secure livelihoods thereafter. Ultimately we have to smash the boundary between vocational and ‘academic’ forms of knowledge but in the meantime a demand of 5 years of fully-funded education or training will do. We need a pragmatic language to talk about education which can draw a range of people in without losing a radical critique which wishes ultimately to demolish the structures and cultures that remain deeply violent.

The old curriculum has to go. The white middle class and largely male monopoly on what counts as knowledge has to come to an end. Hierarchies of institutional prestige need to be eroded. Education has to be free in every sense.

This is the task we face. See you on the 4th November.