‘WWe rented a garret, for which we paid (I think) 25 shillings a year, bought some second-hand forms and desks, borrowed some chairs from the people of the house, bought for a shilling of coal…and started our university. ”
So Joseph Greenwood, a cloth tailor in a West Yorkshire factory, recalls how in 1860 he helped establish Culloden College, one of hundreds of working-class mutual improvement societies in Great Britain in the 19th century. “We had no man of position or education connected with us,” he added, “but several of the students who had made a special study of a particular subject were appointed professors, so that the teacher in one class can be a student in another.”
Greenwood’s story is one of many told by Jonathan Rose in his classic The intellectual life of the British working classes, a magnificent story of workers’ struggles for education, from the beginnings of autodidactism to the Workers’ Education Association. For those in this tradition, the importance of education was not simply to provide the means to get a better job, but to enable new ways of thinking.
“For me books have become symbols of social revolution,” observed James Clunie, a house painter who became a Labor MP for Dunfermline in the 1950s. d’eau’ but became… a leader in his own right, a lawyer, a writer, the equal of men. By the time Rose published her book in 2001, that tradition had largely died out. And, in the two decades that followed, the sense of education as a way to broaden one’s mind also grew.
Last week, the University of Roehampton in south-west London confirmed that it would lay off and rehire half of its university staff and lay off at least 65. Nineteen courses, including classics and l ‘anthropology, should be closed. He wants to focus more on “career focused” learning.
It is the latest in a series of cuts to the humanities made by UK universities, from history and languages at Aston to English literature at Sheffield Hallam. These cuts mark a transformation in the role of universities rooted in three trends: the introduction of the market in higher education; a view of students as consumers; and an instrumental attitude towards knowledge.
The 1963 Robbins Report on British higher education argued for the expansion of universities on the grounds that learning was a good in itself. “The search for truth is an essential function of institutions of higher learning,” he observed, “and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes of the nature of discovery” .
The 2010 Browne report on higher education funding took a very different approach, seeing the importance of universities as primarily economic. “Higher education is important,” he insisted, because it enables students to find jobs with “higher salaries and better job satisfaction” and “helps produce economic growth.”
The utilitarian view of education is often presented as a way to advance working-class students by training them for the job market. What it actually does is tell working-class students to study what suits them best for their position in life. Thus, philosophy, history and literature increasingly become the playthings of the rich and privileged.
There is also another way in which the relationship between the working class and education has changed. A report released last week by think tank IPPR revealed the lack of diversity among MPs, a subject of much debate recently. The IPPR says there is a 5% “representation gap” on ethnicity – 10% of MPs are from a minority background compared to 15% of the general population. For women, the gap between the prevalence in the population and in parliament is 17% and for the working class it is 27%. However, the biggest gap is in education – 86% of MPs have attended university, compared to 34% of the general population. The divide between voters and those who govern them is expressed through the class divide but even more so through the education gap.
The proportion of women and minority MPs has increased over the past 30 years, while that of working-class MPs has dropped dramatically. In the 1987-92 parliament, 28% of Labor MPs had a manufacturing, manual or unskilled job before entering parliament. In 2010, that figure was 10%, rising to 13% for the start of 2019. For conservatives, unsurprisingly, the figure was consistently below 5% and fell to just 1% in 2019.
Part of the reason for the decline in the number of working class MPs is that the institutions that gave working people a public platform, especially the unions, have weakened. RMT’s Mick Lynch, and his success in defending workers’ rights, captured the public imagination. Fifty years ago there were a lot of Mick Lynches because the working class was more central to political life.
At the same time, education has become a marker of social difference in an unprecedented way. As Western societies have become more technocratic, there has developed, in the words of political scientist David Runciman, “a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite for entering the ‘elite’ – bankers, lawyers, doctors, civilian servants, experts, scholars. The real educational divide is not “between knowledge and ignorance”, but “a clash between one vision of the world and another”. Thus, education has become a marker of the Brexit divide.
All of this has led some to argue that education, not class, is Britain’s real political divide. This is not the case. Rather, education is both one of the most significant expressions of the class divide and a means of obscuring it.
“If there is a man in the world who needs knowledge”, wrote Durham coalman Jack Lawson in 1932, “he is the one who does the most necessary work in the world and gets the least from it.” This is as true today as it was 90 years ago.