What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

14th April 2000 at 01:00
ONE OF the notable events during my 14 years as a further education lecturer came when a particularly bright student gained entry to a prestigious university.

I was not surprised. Despite a poor and problematic background, he had achieved four A grades at A-level and was given the college's Chamber of Commerce student of the year award. He was exactly the kind of person that Oxbridge is presently seeking to charm.

He didn't apply to Oxbridge because he didn't want to go there, but he did receive unconditional offers from four red-brick universities. Thus, he was something of a rarity in my college. This was not because he was bright - many were. He was a rarity because he had the determination to excel in the face of obstacles that defeat so many students attending colleges in areas of high social need. I speak here of trying to study and subsist on benefit with the attendant demand that claimants will demonstrate their availability for work - I mean the kind of work that presumes you are a vegetable and pays wages to match.

He went to his first-choice university and continued to collect honours, but additionally he began setting records. He achieved first-class honours, notably gaining a first in all his nine subjects. Nobody in the faculty could remember anyone previously achieving this. He was awarded the faculty Chamber of Commerce prize. He has now gone on to complete his doctorate and has published research.

He could have been forgiven,therefore, for assuming that his wish to be a university lecturer would be achievable - it's hardly asking for the moon, given that he's been in the system since 1992 and has experience as both lecturer and researcher.

And he is no nerdy swot who can't communicate - he'd be an interesting and interested tutor. Now he is about to return to the dole queue, having failed to gain a permanent post as either a researcher or a lecturer.

His belief is that his background has become a major barrier. Specifically, the no-school tie, the no-boys' network, the ruggerless, buggerless old cliche.

On the face of it, this is difficult to prove, but his judgment has always been sound. So what is leading him towards this depressing conclusion? He remarked:

"There's an intense snobbery about being inthe right institution" ... but he's in one of the leading institutions.

He suspects that the most intractable problem is that he can do nothing about the fact that he went to the local comp and FE college and not a public school. As a result, he has had no access to the informal networks that are part of the public-school system and vital for those who wish to pursue an academic career.

Even though a person may acquit themselves admirably with high honours at their venerable alma mater, the reality would appear to support the view that most backgrounds just won't cut the mustard when it comes to university appointments. "I've not had the right opportunities to meet the right individuals."

He showed me an application form for one institution. The A4 sheet was divided into two: the upper half given over entirely to secondary education, the lower part sub-divided into columns encompassing college, university and PhD. While an applicant would be expected to attach additional sheets to the form, he felt that the giving of so much space to school background was telling.

If his suspicions are correct, it begs the question: what's the point if bright but poor individuals end up back on the dole, wiser and deeper in debt? I don't believe that this is permanent and neither does he, but proclamations by higher education establishments, and indeed governments, encouraging working-class students to go to university, take on a jaundiced hue in this context.

Could this be the old bums-on-seats economics that currently makes the great unwashed such hot property? Or is it to do with the elite universities wanting their "bit of rough" in order to make it into New Labour's post-cool, pseudo-meritocracy?

Tony Blair's commitment to the maintenance of selective education, despite the manifesto pledge, would perhaps support this cynical exercise in political correctness.

My former student told me: "I hate people who went to public school ... because they're getting the jobs that I should get ... I find myself hating people I've never even met." He never used to be bitter.

The author is an FE lecturer 'Is it to do with the elite universities wanting their "bit of rough" in order to make it into New Labour's post-cool meritocracy?'


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