David Blunkett rants about Oxbridge
David Blunkett is trying to rescue his failing career with a bout of Oxbridge bashing – often the final recourse, even now, of a Labour politician on his last legs. “Yes my career is going nowhere, but I shall raise a few cheers if I lambast the privilege of the dons in their luxurious quads, and the student toffs.”
But even though I’ve heard it hundreds of times before, listening to his interview with the Fabian Review, I find myself fuming. Oxbridge, so the Blunkett line goes, has no idea how to choose the best. Oxford has been resistant to any move into the 21st century. Cambridge has paid only “lip service” to modernisation. Apparently we reject excellent working class students simply because they wont “fit in”.
Let me say to start by saying that I am basically on Blunkett’s side. That is, we both think that all the kids in the country should have access to excellent education, and that the very best universities (however the ‘best’ is defined) should be open to the brightest students – whatever their social, financial or educational background.
So far so good. And that is exactly the goal I have been working towards ever since I came to teach in Cambridge in 1984. It’s not always straightforward. It also means educating yourself in how you can fairly select these students (especially in a world in which most applicants have straight A’s at A level or are predicted to have that).
Sometimes it is easy enough to see the problem and, maybe, the way forward. We’re talking potential here – not just who has the best A level score, but who has the most intellectual promise. Imagine a kid living in a mobile home, sole carer of a single disabled parent -- and predicted to get 2 As and a B at A level, on just 3 hours a day after her caring duties. There can’t be many people in the world who would think that (given everything else one might know about the candidate, and given what you might find out at interview) it would not be reasonable to offer that candidate a place -- against another with all the advantages that money could buy and predicted to gain three A’s. But real life rarely presents such clear contrasts, and university entrance is necessarily a tricky science.
Blunkett seems simply to have no clue about what is going on in Cambridge -- in my faculty and college at least. He claims, for example, that it was only after 2000 that we began to get our act together about ‘access’. I have taught at Cambridge since 1984 and ‘access’ always been on the agenda and we have always been spending hours, days and months towards that end.
His rant about “lip service” to fairness is ignorant and pernicious nonsense. It will only serve to put off from Oxbridge those he would like to encourage. And it is an insult to me and my colleagues who spend a lot of our time going out to kids and to schools who might not think of Cambridge as their ‘natural’ first choice. OK it might not be a random sample, and it might not always be targeted at the infant schools that Blunkett seems to have in mind, but in the last month or so – to my knowledge – the Cambridge Classics Faculty has been involved in the following:
1) a team (including a Professor, Senior Lecturer, Research Fellow and Graduate Students) has made a two day intensive visit to Greenhead College in Huddersfield
2) a Senior Lecturer has spent a day with a students from a Brighton state school, talking about Cambridge and ancient drama, and working with them on our excellent collection of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture
3) up to the end of the school term, at least three school parties a week were visiting the plaster casts – guided by an Education Officer for whose salary the Faculty has raised charitable funding. (We also have a holiday programme prepared.)
4) every one of my colleagues has responded to numerous emails from applicants and other interested parties, Sounds simple -- but I, for example, spent an hour a couple of weeks ago getting appropriate information to a potential mature student. That's just one of many queries (4 or 5 a week to each of us?) , which don’t have a standard answer.
And there are all kinds of other events we have on the go (including a Greek class offered to children at local schools where Greek cannot be offered), all kinds of other initiatives I know not of, and all kinds of Summer Schools happening in colleges. I sat next to a colleague on the train yesterday who had just come from teaching a group of sixth-formers the principles of cultural history through an analysis of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. There can’t be anyone in this town who is not doing their bit -- and not putting a huge amount of effort into the outreach programme.
It’s easy for Blunkett to sound off. And strikingly he doesn’t pause to reflect on his own government’s role in all this. Is it really Oxbridge’s fault that so many kids leave state schools without a foreign language at GCSE? Or that many are put off university courses out of fear of debt? Nor does he pause to reflect that the two UK universities consistently rated among the best in the world might be getting something right – and not just be some sort of privileged dinosaur.
Rather than think constructively about how we might undo some of the damage done by him and his peers, it is more satisfying for Blunkett blindly (sorry) to vent his spleen on university academics who are doing all they can to attract students – no matter what their background is.