In 1962 I made the leap of a lifetime - from a severely cash-limited working-class household in Hackney (my father had been a packer in a Whitechapel warehouse) to Oxford University. No obstacles were put in my way. Educated at an LCC secondary school, I spent a week at Lincoln College, taking exams for admission to the BA (Hons) in Modern History, and answering questions at a series of intellectually punishing academic interviews. No concessions were made to my socio-economic background. Nor, incidentally, did I benefit from any private tuition, which my parents could never have afforded. I was awarded an Exhibition (a form of scholarship) on merit. Had the college and the university said – perhaps not in so many words – that I had not reached the required standard but that nonetheless some sort of allowance had been made for my parents’ economic circumstances, or (worse still) for my ethnic origins, I would have felt deeply insulted. But no such dialogue ever took place.
I tell this story because Prime Minister David Cameron has this past weekend launched what I take to be a politically motivated attack against the university both he and I attended. In 2014 Oxford admitted only 27 black students out of more than 2,500. In an article for the Sunday Times, Cameron wrote: 'I know the reasons are complex, including poor schooling, but I worry that the university I was so proud to attend is not doing enough to attract talent from across our country.' He also touched upon the figures for white men from poorer backgrounds, who are 'five times less likely to go into higher education than others.'
Assuming that these figures are more or less correct, Cameron needs to ask himself why poor white people are much less likely 'than others' to enter higher education. I can assure him – as a senior executive in the British higher education sector – that it isn’t because I or any of my colleagues are prejudiced against the poor. But many of the poor are – unconsciously – prejudiced against higher education. By this I mean that they suffer from the worst form of poverty – namely, poverty of aspiration, and the belief that institutions like Oxford aren't suitable for them. And for this affliction the HE sector is certainly not to blame. The culpability lies with the secondary schools, and the social attitudes with which far too many of our talented poorer pupils are now imbued.
At the school I attended no-one said to me: 'Alderman, don’t waste our time with airy-fairy ideas about going to Oxford. Oxford is full of toffs and they don’t like Jews. That place isn’t for the likes of you.' I was, rather, encouraged and supported in an ambition that my school insisted was well within my grasp.
Does the Prime Minister understand poverty of aspiration? I fear not. While apparently rejecting 'politically correct' solutions such as positive discrimination (reserving a certain number of places for poor or non-white students), he has issued a veiled but very ill-judged warning: that a failure on the part of the HE sector to take action will lead to 'discrimination and disadvantage' that would 'only feed those who preach a message of grievance and victimhood'.
Doesn’t Cameron realise that he has actually reinforced the idea that poor people or black people simply don’t go to places like Oxford? I fear not. Instead, he has apparently decided to encourage a witch-hunt against our universities. But I can tell him that this will definitely not solve the problem. Nor will a lowering of standards, which might well result in admitting those unlikely to benefit from the education a university has to offer. The solution lies rather with primary and secondary schools, and with parents and guardians, who can help encourage students to apply.
Responding to Cameron, a spokeswoman for Oxford University has quite rightly observed that 'the effects of social inequality are already pronounced before children begin formal schooling, and universities, schools and government must work together to address their root causes effectively.' What precisely does the Prime Minister intend to do to address these root causes?
Geoffrey Alderman is Professor of Politics & Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham