Those numbers have probably changed quite a bit since then, not that I disagree with the overall…
Ben Sauer

Hi Ben,

You’re right. I checked the figures and the ratio between the two constituencies in the latest figures I could find is about 2.8:1, compared to 5:1 in 2002/3. I’d be interested to understand more about the changes that have been going on in higher education participation.

One thing that’s almost too obvious to say, of course, is that the generic category of “higher education” is highly misleading when we’re trying to make sense of the social role that we’re talking about here. The last time I checked, Oxford wasn’t looking much less dominated by the privately educated than twenty years ago, when I was there.

I was one of the privately educated, thanks to a sixth form scholarship that took me from a decent comprehensive to a local independent school. I still remember my incomprehension when my house master there told me, ‘I like to think of this as a very middle class school.’ It was only years later I realised in hindsight he was trying to tell me that I shouldn’t be intimidated, that this wasn’t a posh school. Up to that point, middle class — and I was middle class — had always meant posh in my world.

I remember telling my mum that we were middle class, when I was thirteen, and how this disoriented her, who had grown up on a council estate in a small town in the disputed borderlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire, left school at sixteen with two O-levels and gone into nursing.

Nowadays, you don’t go into nursing by leaving school at sixteen, you go into it by going to university. The same change had happened in journalism between the generation of the reporters who were retiring as I was starting out and my generation. For us, the route into a first job in a radio newsroom was self-funding through a year’s postgraduate diploma. As a consequence, most of us (me included) arrived with the cocky insecurity of kids who have learned how to do things ‘right’ in order to get good marks — and with accents that betrayed us to the listeners as ignorant of the places on which we were reporting, a betrayal confirmed when we got placenames and other elementary local knowledge wrong.

The closing off of one trade after another to those who missed the train of higher education is another part of the story of the restructuring of British society over the past couple of generations in which Brexit is the latest chapter, along with the more often told stories of the decline and destruction of industries which once anchored communities.

My friend Gustavo Esteva once wrote an article for one of the Mexican daily newspapers arguing that discrimination on the grounds of the number of years a person has spent in education ought to be illegal. To require proof of competence of necessary skills is one thing, but the currency of degrees and diplomas is inevitably weighted against the poor. Though the distinction is, once again, more likely to be recognised from below.

Thanks for the comment, Ben. I don’t mean to dismiss the improvements in HE participation over the past two decades. Without having dug deeper into them, they seem like an example of the best that could be hoped for from the progressive wing of neoliberal realism, which is how I understand the Brown-Blair era of Labour. Now it is the ‘reality’ of neoliberal realism that is at stake, though so far the escape routes from it do not look likely to lead us anywhere we would hope for — or, at least, not directly.