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?”

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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.