Universities Challenged

An Attempt to Make Universities More Equal Is Making Things Even Worse

Government measures to level the academic playing field are entrenching privilege.
11 April 2019, 8:30am
Oxford University inequality
Freshers week at Oxford (Oxford Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo)

US colleges were thrown into scandal last month when it was revealed that dozens of rich people were using bribes and other scams to get their kids into top universities. On the one hand, this generated some absolutely A-grade William H. Macy content. On the other: by having all those rich people get caught cheating the US college admissions system, it helped expose widespread corruption in elite American university education.

Or did it? In a way, the only actually shocking thing about the College Bribery Scandal was how elaborate it was: the idea that any of these intensely privileged people felt that it was in any way necessary to help their kids access an elite education by doing crime.

The UK has its own long history of rich people using their money and influence to force their idiot children's way into elite institutions. If matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge feels like living out a Harry Potter fantasy, it won't only be because of the buildings: it will be the feeling of being inducted into a charmed elite.

Elite institutions might like to pretend that their prestige comes from providing the best possible education, from hiring the most brilliant and dynamic researchers as Professors. In truth the advantages they provide students with are not solely – not even primarily – academic. If the children of the rich and the powerful did not attend these top institutions, providing their classmates students with a once-in-a-lifetime networking opportunity, they simply would not function in the way that they're supposed to.

The question we should really be asking is what might be done about any of this. The state doesn’t necessarily want everyone to think that Oxbridge is the only place you can get an education worthy of the name, and recently have made an attempt to level the playing field. Unfortunately their attempt is not very good.

The Teaching Excellence Framework is the government’s way of measuring the quality of education taking place at our universities, to help us get a better sense of which institutions are doing well, and which badly – regardless of established reputation. Unfortunately, the Royal Statistical Society has recently accused its rankings of being “invalid.” That’s because the TEF involves no actual inspections, instead measuring things like how likely graduates are to be employed after graduating – metrics which favour already-prestigious institutions. In other words, the thing that is supposed to make universities more equal is actually entrenching privilege.

The failures of the TEF indicate that any meaningful change would have to be pretty radical. Over here in the UK, perhaps we could start by looking at Oxbridge's wealth. In 2017, the combined value of financial assets commanded by the University of Oxford and its constituent colleges was found to be over £5 billion. In 2015, St John’s College alone could command assets worth over £400 million. Trinity College Cambridge owns the O2 Arena, as well as the land on which the Port of Felixstowe, the UK's largest container port, is built. In 2017, Oxford raised £750 million from a bond issue. In February of this year, financier David Harding, a Cambridge alumnus, gave £100 million – the largest single donation in the recent history of British higher education – to the university, mostly to assist PhD students.

Even compared with the wealthiest non-Oxbridge universities, these colleges live a different financial planet. The next-wealthiest university in England is the University of Manchester. This massive, research-intensive university with more than 27,000 undergraduate students has a total endowment of just over £230 million. St John’s Oxford, for comparison, has just 385 undergraduates and an endowment of £390 million. To compare a research-intensive institution somewhat further down the pecking order, the University of Essex (over 10,000 undergraduates) can command an endowment of just £6.5 million.

What if Oxbridge colleges were no longer allowed to use their wealth to their own sole advantage? What if the sector somehow legislated so that all their money now had to be pooled across it – to allow Bournemouth and UWE and Manchester Metropolitan and all the rest to benefit, equally with St John's and Jesus and Wolfson?

Perhaps the children of the rich and the powerful would still end up going to Oxbridge anyway – old habits die hard. But if other institutions received genuinely equal investment, they might be raised to new heights and that might help help erode inequalities over time.

Wealth and power will always be used to corrupt things – just so long as we exist in an unequal society, higher education will probably always be in some way corrupt. But a more diverse sector, less beholden to a handful of old giants, would be far better equipped to mitigate wealth's corrupting effects.