Sunday 22 October 2017

Oxbridge and the Reproduction of the Ruling Class

It's one of the great ironies of contemporary capitalism. The early 21st century gives off the impression of living in an age of rapid change, and that is true in some aspects. But in others, particularly relating to matters of class and economics, things are a deal more static. Not only is there a strong tendency toward stagnation, but our supposedly dynamic system is seizing up. The standard of living is flatlining and increasingly financed on the never-never, social mobility is down and the upper echelons of society are seeing the privileged and well-heeled pensioned off and replaced by ... the privileged and well-heeled. That's why the news of Oxbridge getting even narrower came as zero surprise.

According to the research, the top two income groups grew their share of successful applicants from 79% to 81%. Shock horror the Home Counties received more offers of a place than the entirety of northern England - some 2,812 vs 2,619, and despite not insignificant sums both universities spend on widening participation. This isn't the result of some crude conspiracy to keep out northerners and people from modest income brackets but a consequence of the relationship between inequality and educational attainment, a subject well studied and a link between the two generally accepted. Of course, in case the hard-of-thinking might be reading this, noting the impact of inequality on formal qualifications isn't to say working class kids don't do well and don't get sent up to Oxbridge, but it does mean the odds are stacked against them and are therefore less likely to.

Attending an Oxbridge college does offer tremendous opportunities. The programme of study is more intensive than that offered at virtually any other institution (Oxford alone is in receipt of £800m from the government alone per year, which helps pay for all those tutors). It requires students to deepen the kinds of analytical and presentation skills as standard that one finds among exceptional and auto-didactic students elsewhere, and allows for the cultivation of unmatched quantities of cultural and social capital. Cultural in that aptitudes acquired endows one with a habitus, or a set of conscious and unconscious dispositions that are advantageous when encountering the mores and expectations of the rarefied and privileged fields that cluster atop our society. And social because of the networks. Not only is an Oxbridge graduate more likely to know and be tied to people from privileged backgrounds, those linkages are passports to useful contacts and powerful jobs. They form part of the stretchy social glue that sees our establishment politics and, in some cases, our radical politics dominated by people who attended the same colleges doing the same degree programmes. This is why Oxbridge supplies almost a third of MPs, an overwhelming number of national journalists, increasing numbers of media personalities, senior civil servants, top lawyers, and, of course, the top managerial staff of British business.

If Oxbridge plays a pivotal role in the social and cultural reproduction of the ruling class and those who support it, then why the panic about thinning participation? Why do the runners and the riders of this story care so long as elites are turned out uninterruptedly? Partly, the huge stress on social mobility rhetoric from Blair onwards represents a set of strategies by the state to substitute its activities for the slowing up of social mobility. Post-war Keynesianism wasn't a golden age, but it did redistribute opportunity (and depress inequality) thanks to the expansion of clerical and managerial work in the state owned industries. The huge growth of further and higher education, as well as an extension of the state bureaucracy worked as transmission belts. The unleashing of the market was met by a seizing up of the mechanism. In an age of dog-eat-dog and privatised self-reliance, those who start out with advantage are always likely to do better. So while, for instance, a working class youngster is more likely to attend university in 2017 than 1997 or 1977 the opportunities beyond that exist in limited numbers except if you went to one of the elite institutions. The end of social mobility is a problem because the more our elites draw from a narrow segment of the population, the less they look like everyone else and that raises problems of legitimacy. You only have to look at our politicians and the general antipathy towards them to know why this matters.

Should the left add its voices to this critique of Oxbridge and the need for them to open up? Absolutely not. The problem isn't that the two universities are too selective, it's their being vectors of ruling class dominance. They are but the apex of a system riddled with class demarcation and snobbery, both in terms of institutional rankings and irrelevant disciplinary hierarchies - something the government's ludicrous market in higher education only reinforces. The answer isn't the abolition of Oxbridge, but in taking on and destroying these circuits of class. A flattening of entry criteria is part of the process, but the real key is massive investment along the lines of Labour's proposed life long education service, one that allows all institutions the resources to provide the intensive experience Oxbridge offers. Not only does this widen opportunity and the availability, and has the added bonus of cutting against the Conservative Party, it disrupts the established strategies of ruling class reproduction. What's not to like?


Unknown said...

We don't want to copy Owbridge at all. We don't want to produce those sorts of people, narrow minded and self serving. Why would we want to produce those kind of people elsewhere? We want to abolish Owbridge and the system they are designed to serve.

MikeB said...

An Oxbridge college recently invited me to discuss how it could increase the number of care leavers entering its doors - which is NIL for most colleges, most years. They are genuinely open to ideas, but within the limits of the existing system. As any fule no, the problem will not be solved by tinkering like bending admission criteria to add "flags" guaranteeing interviews to certain "less privileged" groups who meet the minimum entrance requirements (as is the current practice). It is the system itself which systematically disables those groups well before they even think about higher education. It's not in the gift these universities to alter this - but maybe they can start something symbolically powerful....

By a neat coincidence, the number of undergraduates entering Oxford and Cambridge universities each year is very roughly the same as the number of 18+ young people leaving care (about 6,000). And the Oxbridge college system - with its small community size, 1:1 tutorial support system and (often) guaranteed accommodation and catering, offers a ready-made structure to support the transition from care to adult independence.

Now, I wonder if I can persuade them....;)

Anonymous said...

Typically dumbed-down BBC report, what is "the North of England" and what are "the Home Counties?" other than sound bites. Definitions of these regions vary. But if they mean the official government definitions then the North actually excludes the Northwest and Yorkshire, and has a much smaller population than the Southeast region.

As regards Oxbridge producing disproportionate percentage of media people, journalists, and politicians, these are all groups whom we need a lot less of. It's engineers and scientists and skilled technicians we need more of.

Not having been to Oxbridge, and rarely met anyone who has, I'm not sure how good on Oxbridge education really is. I'm underwhelmed by the intellectual capacity of some of its products (Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson), and conclude that networking rather than education is by far the main advantage conferred by these institutions.

Having said which, there's certainly room for massive improvement in other Universities, let alone schools. About five years ago I met a social work student, more than halfway through her course, who had never read a book in her entire life!

Dialectician1 said...

The problem with any discussion about social mobility is that it sets up the debate from false foundations. As you rightly say, social mobility in the post-war years was entirely the result of the restructuring of the economy towards a welfare/corporatist form of capitalism. There were simply more 'middle class' type jobs. Most of the best of these jobs were filled by the old middle classes but it did offer many opportunities for the working class to get into permanent, non-manual employment (with a pension, incremental salary, holiday/sick pay etc.) You are also correct in showing how a university degree from a non-elite university provides little advantage today. Prior to the expansion of universities in the 1990s, only 7%-9% of each cohort entered higher education. In the past, the rarity value of a degree gave it kudos and bargaining power. Today, that can only be achieved by Russell Group graduates (similar equivalent %)

Much of the credible sociological research on social mobility suggests that not much has changed over the past 100 years. There was no 'golden age' when so-called 'bright' working class kids made it to the top. The tortuous conventions (see Bourdieu) set up by the upper/middle classes over the generations to ensure that their wealth and status is retained should not surprise us.

What is strange about the whole debate is not that there are still people out there who think that social mobility has 'stalled'. It never stalled because it never started! There are also still people who believe in the eugenics notion of a 'fixed' intelligence and therefore that 'bright' people deserve to go to the top. We need to rid ourselves of these daft liberal notions and recognise that the way in which the debate is being framed legitimises the idea that the rigged system can be fixed.

Diane Reay has just published 'Miseducation: inequality, education and the working class' (2017). Worth a butchers for those who want to go beyond the boring social mobility debate and explore the historical roots of our class-riddled education system. Also worth reading Danny Dorling on how enduring notions of eugenics continue to distort our understanding of what it means to be educated.

Education worker said...

I don't understand why people expect massive, constant, long term social mobility. People find their own level, marry and produce children with people much like themselves and so on. They pass on the same genes and habits that got them to X level, so surely one would expect the progeny to do about the same?

It's not 'the schools' or 'the funding' or 'the teachers':

In a 2014 meta-analysis, Pahlke and her colleagues reviewed the studies and found when examining schools with the same type of students and same level of resources—rather than “comparing [those at] the public co-ed school to [their counterparts at] the fancy private school that’s single-sex down the road”—there isn’t any difference in how the students perform academically. Single-sex schooling also hasn’t been shown to offer a bump in girls’ attitudes toward math and science or change how they think about themselves. In other words, it often looks like single-sex schools are doing a better job educating kids, but they aren't. It's just that their graduates are people who were going to do well at any school.


What causes differential motivation to learn in children?:

What is the link between intelligence and educational attainment?:

Reading ability is significantly heritable:

All human traits are significantly heritable:

MikeB said...

@Education worker

There is an important difference between "heritabillity" and the commonplace translation of that term to mean, "It's all down to the genes" - a difference which your post seems (deliberately?) to gloss over.

But it would indeed be very strange to find any trait that has no genetic influence on it, so the observation that any one - or indeed "all" - human trait is significantly heritable is little more than a truism. Conversely, however, "heritability" is not 100% for any trait - all show substantial environmental variability. This is particularly so for complex traits such as those which underlie educational attainment. It's also significant to note that most studies show that correlates of "intelligence" show the heritability of these traits increases with age - but of course, by adulthood, the dice have been cast and inequalities tend to be entrenched.

I haven't the inclination to get into a debate about whether it is worth bothering about inequality in educational outcomes. Clearly, you believe it isn't. I disagree.

Education worker said...


Thanks for your response.

Of course I accept the role of the environment. The education system should do its best in every way. Likewise, extreme conditions will produce strong effects.

But we must consider that today most children, even from relatively poor families, are raised with a historically stupendous amount of comfort, food, shelter, safety, educational games, toys, and so on. So it clearly isn't a decisive factor or else, in the past, when even the better off had no central heating, no antiobiotics, electronic toys, and so on, it would have been impossible to educate them. Yet they were.

Likewise, children from backgrounds with 'more' income. Does the law of diminishing returns not apply here? Does 'more' Sky channels, or 'newer' playstations, or 'foreign' holidays impart IQ points by osmosis compared to a child with lesser quantity of these things?

Many 'higher income' parents spend less time with their children, especially fathers, often due to long work hours. So a lot of better of kids will have less parental contact and stimulation than the average. Does the research show that they cease regress to the mean of their parents IQ over time due to 'the environment'? If not, that's a dog that should bark that isn't barking.

Furthermore, that

" most studies show that correlates of "intelligence" show the heritability of these traits increases with age - but of course, by adulthood, the dice have been cast and inequalities tend to be entrenched."

shows precisely that early, intensive interventions are leaning against something which reasserts itself in adulthood. That thing is the child's heredity. So citing that fact actually supports a stronger herditarian claim.

The other issue is the production of unusually bright children by some less educated/poorer families, and the produciton of unusual dopes by educated or better off couples. If the environement was the determining factor these cases would simply not occurr.

As for the 'key early years' twin studies have made this hard/impossible to believe. One twin goes to a poor family. One to some other. Surprise! By adulthood they are around the IQ level, educational/professional correlate levels that one would expect based upon biological parentage. Where did the environment go?

"I haven't the inclination to get into a debate about whether it is worth bothering about inequality in educational outcomes."

There are good reasons the left avert their eyes on these matters and avoid them.

MikeB said...

@Education worker
Thanks for that. The proposition that intellectual abilities have some genetic basis is trivial. But this is a political blog, and a political argument. In this context, the question is whether it matters if some reductive measure of "IQ" or the like is 10% or 50% or 80% heritable. I'd suggest it does not - or should not.

"People find their own level, marry and produce children with people much like themselves and so on. They pass on the same genes and habits that got them to X level, so surely one would expect the progeny to do about the same?"

Leaving aside the loaded phrase "their own level", this is a telling elision. Subsuming "habits" into "heritability" is typical of the sleight of hand by which genetic determinists smuggle environmental factors into their "it's all in the genes" argument.

Something like 40% of the Oxbridge intake comes from private schools. Is it really credible that they share some significant genetic difference compared to their peers in state schools? Or is it more likely that the culture of expectation and intensive preparation - *specifically for Oxbridge entrance* - is the explanation? And the wider significance of this is that an Oxbridge education improves the chance that you will occupy a position high in the socioeconomic hierarchy - even if your native intelligence tends to revert to your "heritable" potential. On the other hand, look at the composition of the Cabinet. These people are clearly genetically predisposed to govern. And the rest of us better be content with our roles as middle managers, or plumbers, or housemaids...>sarcasm<

I am certainly interested in genetics , epigenetics and brain development. One interesting thing is that as these fields expand, they are showing that reductive models of trait development and the old nature/nurture dichotomy are hopelessly inadequate. I can't speak for "the left", but I can see that many detect the spectre of Huxley's Brave New World and the grotesqueries of eugenics behind the arguments of genetic determinists

Lidl_Janus said...

Apropos of absolutely nothing whatsoever on this comment thread, here's a (re)tweet I stumbled across.