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?”


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.

£9k fees, social class and arguments for the left

As a student activist who was involved in fees protests back in 2011 (and earlier) one of the arguments we put forward then was the debt aversity amongst students from working class backgrounds would mean those students simply wouldn’t apply. This was, and to some extent, remains, a naive argument. Not because debt doesn’t matter or because it is not disproportionately a fear for working class students. Both those things are still true. What we underestimated is that university was and still is the only and best game in town for young people. Immediately after “top-up” fees of £3,000 were introduced in 2006, there was a dip in applicants the following year but after that year applicant numbers continued to rise (UCAS, 2012: 15). The same thing happened after 2012-13. Whilst the gaps between rich and poor in acceptance to elite universities remain huge, the evidence also shows that things seem to be going in the right direction, i.e. the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is increasing more quickly than for those from advantaged backgrounds (UCAS, 2014: 79). This leads to the usual crowing celebration on the right that the class-segmented and increasingly neo-liberal university system works and in particular that the palliative widening participation (WP) measures are working.

On the latter point, I would agree that certain forms of WP work are effective and at best, quite brilliant. There are broader issues with WP work which, whilst necessary and, even, emancipatory at an individual level, sometimes inadvertently provide a social alibi for a university system which remains heavily segregated by class and race. However, what matters here is that student activists on the left have a response to the fees issue. When asked, but why are working class young people still applying to university with £9k fees – what do you say? There is some data which provides at least a partial response to this.

After the 2012-13 fee increase, UCAS (2012) produced a report looking at the effect of the fee increase. The take home finding is arguably that there is little difference in the types of choices about courses 18 year-old students were making before and after the fee rise. But what it did show is that disadvantaged students (whether you look at postcode-based measures, income or social class) on average apply to courses with a lower cost, which is what the graph below shows (Source: UCAS, 2012: 13).

What you can’t say from that is that the fee rise has meant people from working class backgrounds are choosing cheaper courses. The data only refers to one year when the system was operating with the new fees (the previous years’ of data in the graph come from linking courses to their new 2012 fee). Higher fees may now be part of the reason people choose courses this data strongly suggests that there is something to debt aversity in affecting the choices people make about going to university. In my interviews with young people this is often combined with a decision to stay at home and attend the local, often “post-1992” university.

What the data really shows is the deep rooted inequality which remains, i.e. working class students apply for cheaper, often ‘less prestigious’ courses at the, so-called, ‘new’ universities. Under the new graduated fee system, which isn’t very graduated, there is some reflection of ‘prestige’ in fee cost. What is probably happening is some savvy realpolitik in certain universities, who set their fees with some awareness that cost is an issue for their less priviliged intake of students. Fee-levels are thus a reflection of how our universities are differentiated by intake and arguably are acting to reinforce institutional hierarchies.

Where does this leave the student activist in the argument with the right-wing hack? To answer the part of the argument about fees which relates to social class background on entry to university, we can say that debt aversity matters. The fee increase might not have changed behaviour, but by reinforcing the differentiation between different universities, it seems likely to have reinforced differences in where and to what course people are applying to in a way which varies by class. Yes disadvantaged students are still applying to university, but we have to respond that the blunt inequality in the proportions of students applying and in particular where students off different backgrounds apply and are accepted is still horrific. The fee system also provides yet another marker which reinforces the institutional hierarchy of different universities. This is an incredibly backward step. If greater fee flexibility were introduced it is highly likely that this would in absolute terms, continue to exacerbate differences between universities.

Where I think the rot sets in and a left-position becomes harder to defend when talking about fees, and education more generally, is if we slip into a discourse which accepts, even implicitly, that individual aspiration and social mobility are what matter. Of course people still want to go to university, no matter what the fees are, and of course it is a good thing that disadvantaged students are continuing to apply in greater numbers. But this only works on an individual level. The logic of fees and individualizing how we pay for education pushes us further and further away from the argument that education is a collective good. The real dilemma for a left-position on schooling and education is how to turn people’s individual hopes and, especially for the middle classes, anxieties about education into a collective push for a more egalitarian system. If there is a reason for optimism about the current fee system, it lies in the levels of debt and the strong likelihood future generations will not pay it off. The free education demo just before Christmas provides hope that the £9k generation will find a collective voice over this. Finding the (party) political will to change the system will be harder still, but I for one still believe.