“Oxford and Cambridge must launch new colleges for disadvantaged young people”
That's the headline from a recent article published in The Guardian by Andrew Adonis. Officially known in the UK as “The Right Honourable The Lord Adonis PC,” Adonis was behind the creation of tuition fees within UK higher education. In 2017, Adonis did an about-face and decided that it was a more politically sound strategy to criticize and even call for the abolishment of fees.
Not content with his very public reversal on university fees, Adonis has now decided to tackle the very real problem of widening participation within the UK's most prestigious institutions – Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge).
According to King's College London:
“Traditionally, the term ‘widening participation’ refers to raising the aspirations and attainment of people from backgrounds that are under-represented at university. The aim behind widening participation is to ensure that student bodies at universities reflect the diversity represented in wider society.”
The solution that Adonis thinks will bring about substantive change in terms of widening participation at Oxbridge is to create 'separate but equal' colleges for 'disadvantaged students.' His idea is to increase admission to Oxbridge of under-represented students, but not to actually take on institutionalized bias, the class system, elitism, etc.
Imagine if you will, if a US senator wrote an op-ed in the NY Times calling for the creation of separate Harvard University academic departments for students from low socio-economic backgrounds with a stated goal of increasing access. It would be lambasted by everyone due to the fact that it doesn't address structural inequalities and would actually increase division by way of 'ghettoisation.'
The UK has historically had a severe class divide. It's still very much reflected in the make-up of a higher education sector that is extremely hierarchical in terms of 'prestige' and rankings.
Adonis is attempting to make himself the hero of a new narrative...'abolish tuition fees, increase access.' It all sounds good at face value until you employ a minute amount of critical thought.
The UK government has essentially stripped away any substantial funding streams for universities. Institutions rely heavily on funds generated from student tuition fees. Adonis gets a tidy sound bite in the press for taking shots against fees, but he doesn't address the flaws that he is actually responsible for creating in the first place. It's much more politically advantageous for Adonis to rail against fees, place university leaders in the role of 'villain,' and ignore the reality of his own complicity.
Furthermore, the creation of new colleges, segregated institutions within an already increasingly diverse Oxbridge, would do little to actually address the class divides that continue to throttle the United Kingdom.
Oxbridge alone cannot fundamentally change social stratification in the UK. Whilst these two institutions are easily targeted in the media, they are mere byproducts of a constitutional monarchy.
Segregation has never been a true path to access or equality. In 1979, Audre Lorde wrote The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House. Oppression cannot be defeated via the creation of additional oppressive structures. Widening participation by way of the existing colleges at Oxbridge is literally the only way to deconstruct, rebuild, and transform the UK's most prestigious educational 'houses.'
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