Cambridge and the slave trade: extended mix of a letter to The Times*

The decision by Cambridge University to establish an enquiry into how it benefited from the slave trade was attacked by Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar as setting ‘new standards of political correctness. Will the Cambridge vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, be worried? I expect he will be delighted.

Inclusivity is one of the biggest challenges facing university leaders, especially at elite institutions. In A-Levels, black students significantly under-perform against other ethnic groups; fewer than 500 achieved three As or better in 2016-17. Similar attainment gaps have been identified within universities.

In this context, attracting students of black African and black Caribbean origin is a huge challenge, and creating an environment in which they will fulfil their potential is maybe even more challenging. Pressure is being placed on elite universities by the Office for Students and liberal politicians. More importantly, university leaders increasingly recognize the value, for all students, of diverse learning environments. At Exeter, I’ve been privileged this academic year to be involved in a project to address these issues.

Critics of the Cambridge decision have labelled it ‘virtue signalling’, deploying the reactionary’s suspicion that anyone looking virtuous must merely be putting on a show. And yet universities today spend much time and money on signalling their virtues, usually in the form of ‘values’ or ‘mission statements’ that are rarely read or remembered. By contrast, Cambridge is enacting its virtues, and sending in the process a much more powerful message to former, current and potential students.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the reaction to the Cambridge announcement has been hearing professional historians – outliers, admittedly – arguing that knowing more about the past might be a bad thing. Biggar himself rests his profile less on his position as a theologian than his current research project designed to resurrect the reputation of the British Empire. This all feels a little bit like proponents of sovereignty arguing that a little bit more democracy would be a bad thing. Maybe there’s just a bedrock of reactionary illogic holding some people from engaging with the rest of us at the moment.

And in truth there are few risks to this review. Broadly speaking, the outcomes are known: of course Cambridge benefited from the slave trade, as all major British institutions did. I expect the recommendations are also envisaged in advance: a package of student support, some curriculum changes and staff hires, changes to university symbolism and the built environment, and so on. Some of the trickier decisions may fall to colleges rather than the University: this thought might just have crossed Toope’s mind as well. Critics have said the University should do other things if it’s serious about inclusivity, but without explaining why doing this will prevent it from doing those as well.

Biggar turns his ire in closing on the ‘aggressively woke’ Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, whose research on colonialism takes a somewhat different approach to the topic to Biggar’s own. For an Oxbridge vice-chancellor, looking for brand ambassadors to crack the challenge of inclusivity in 2019, I would suggest that Gopal looks a better bet than her antagonist and Times columnist. If you were one of the 500 or so black students predicted three As at A Level – a cohort of interest to all the UK’s elite universities – would you be feeling more warmly towards Oxford or Cambridge this week?

  • Back in the day, we might have said ‘the twelve-inch version’. There’s only so much you can say on 200 words, so there are a few more here. Thanks to Rosemary Bennett, at The Times, for inviting a response to Nigel Biggar’s piece (which really wound me up).

Feeling sorry for Oxford: another week in the widening participation debate

Just another week of fury in the coverage of higher education in the British media. On Wednesday The Telegraph was celebrating the fact that half of the students starting this year are the first in their family to go to university, and it seemed like all was well in the world. But in Britain, every patch of sunshine has a Storm Brian on the horizon. So along came The Guardian on Friday, barracked along by the BBC, to hammer Oxford on its record on social inclusion.

It’s not often I feel sorry for colleagues at Oxbridge, but this is one of them. The data are actually contestable (see an excellent twitter thread by @Dr_JSA yesterday), and say much about entrenched problems with social inclusion across the entire education system. It’s a bit tough to blame Oxford for inequality in the UK, but there we are. The Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach from Oxford was pulled onto the Today programme to be harangued by David Lammy, and social media was whipped into a frenzy. (That, by the way, is a definition of acting above one’s pay-grade. Oxford should have put forward a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for that spot.)

Give it a few days and Storm Lammy will blow over, the Daily Mail will publish a piece on the evils of contextual offers – as, let’s remember, they do – and we will stumble into another round of undergraduate admissions no wiser than we were at the outset. What an absurd – yet, in this country at this moment, absolutely typical – way of handling a hugely important social and educational issue.

So, yes, I feel a little bit sorry for Oxford. But I also think they – and other universities that could so easily be the focus of attention next week – could learn something from this.


Transparency and the contextual offer

Universities waffle when it comes to contextual offers (i.e. lower offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds). Maybe that’s for good reason, since we sail between Scylla and Charybdis, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. Maybe it’s because central governments have been too spineless to give us some cover from the latter by speaking out in support of such offers. But we waffle. I’ve waffled myself at open days.

Yet there is solid evidence that underpins contextual offers: have a look, in particular, at anything from the Bristol Widening Participation Research Cluster. There are limits, of course; a student entering Oxford with A-Levels at CCC is probably more likely to drop out than to succeed. But the research supports making offers roughly two grades lower than standard for a course to students from under-performing schools and colleges. They will catch up.

But I’m amazed how opaque we all tend to be about contextual offers and the basis upon which they are made. My sense is that quite a lot of universities make them, but I’m much less convinced that potential applicants know about them. Surely transparency matters.

Which brings me to the Oxbridge interview. In practice, in the hands of skilled and sympathetic interviewers, I’m sure these can be a mechanism for making very generous contextual offers. I’ve certainly heard stories along these lines, while I know A*A*A* applicants from private schools who have been rejected. But it seems to me that this happens at the expense of consistency and transparency, and as a result all the good work is scattered in the wind. I wonder whether someone at Oxford has studied what would happen if they scrapped their interviews.


Cultural diversity and the dreaming spires

The other big issue with interviews is: how many potential applicants do they deter? I’ve had proponents of the Oxbridge interview tell me over and over that they are socially progressive: a way of weeding out the well-coached but intellectually vacuous privately-educated applicant. But is the working-class Islamic girl in Newcastle hearing this message? Or is she listing other universities on her UCAS form?

I heard a black Cambridge student on ‘The World at One’ yesterday talking about her interview experience. It was fair, she said, but she was glad to have been through an access programme that included interview training sessions. Well, precisely. Access programmes are fantastic and we should do more to publicize them, but they’re also costly and by nature patchy in their coverage of the population. If students like that one need the benefit of an access programme to demystify the Oxbridge interview, I’d suggest they have a problem.

These problems are compounded by the existing lack of cultural diversity. If I was that Islamic girl in Newcastle, I could quite imagine thinking that Oxford isn’t for me. Let’s face it, the public face of Oxbridge is white and comfortable; and much of the rest of the Russell Group – step forward my own university – is pretty similar. Who really wants to be the first black student in six years to enter the gates of Merton College, Oxford? What do universities like mine have, that will attract socially disadvantaged and ethnic minority applicants to us?

This is a huge challenge, but not one that I’ve yet seen any place tackle in an exemplary manner. Who is the outstanding Russell Group PVC with responsibility for cultural diversity? Any answers? Which university has stood back and really asked itself what it needs to do to make itself more welcoming – more of a home – to its ‘non-standard’ applicants? We’ve all addressed this question in relation to international students, so surely it’s possible to change if we really want to do so.

Let’s face it, the presence of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford doesn’t help, especially when an MP is accusing the University of ‘social apartheid’. I appreciate I’m in the minority, but I’d be doing something about that, because symbolism matters. Other universities can start with more of a blank slate, though still facing some undeniable challenges in terms of location, reputation, and so forth. Cultural change is hard – indeed it makes fiddling around with contextual offers look easy – but crucial if we really want to shift patterns of application.

The disappearance of the male humanist, and other stories from the 2017 UCAS data

The headline figure from this year’s dump of UCAS university application data is an overall drop in demand. To the extent that this is a home-student phenomenon, it is largely demographic and was widely expected; to the extent that it’s an EU-student phenomenon, it’s Brexit. But these figures tell a multitude of more specific tales, particularly when broken down to subject areas.

I want to focus here on the humanities, analyzing trends in the JACS3 codes Q to V. Without getting too detailed, Q includes linguistics and literature subjects, R and T are largely languages, while V includes history and philosophy. There is no S. Really, there is no S.

And while it’s easy to get distracted by the overall one-year decline, I’m more interested in the five-year trends. Helpfully, the overall (all-subjects) figures for applicants to universities in all parts of the UK were roughly comparable in 2013 and 2017 (to be exact, a rise of c.1%). So any deviations are worth noticing.

Is it time, yet, for a crisis in the humanities?

               The view from the USA

I’ve argued in the past that ‘crisis’ talk, imported from elsewhere in the world, is misplaced in Britain. In the USA, there is evidence of a consistent year-by-year decline in demand at undergraduate level for humanities majors over the past ten years (see table, right). History has, perhaps, been most badly hit.

In the UK the only thing we have known for sure is that there’s a crisis in Modern Languages. No change there: over the period 2013-2017 the main ML category (R) is down 24%. Maybe there’s now a narrative that goes: the Erasmus crisis gets sorted, and a generation of right pissed-off teenagers flood into ML departments as a form of resistance to Brexit. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Overall, in categories Q-V, the trend is down 9% over five years. While these figures are not so useful for tracking individual subjects, some trends are apparent. As opposed to the US experience, History appears to be holding up quite well. By comparison, English is down, and the pressures on this discipline – my discipline – are compounded by the fact that some of the more prestigious universities have increased capacity through the same period. More and more English departments are likely to feel the pinch.

‘Oh my boys, my boys, we are at the end of an age!’

While a crisis in the humanities remains a matter of debate, we don’t need Uncle Monty to remind us that there’s one hell of a gender crisis. This table indicates the disparity between male and female applicants, with young men drifting away from the humanities at a disproportionate rate. The drop in category Q means that there are now more than threeucas-table17 female applicants for these subjects for every one male applicant.

Two anecdotes at this point. Number one: last week I met with one of my few male personal tutees, who is flying along in his first year of an English degree, and couldn’t be happier. His only concern was that he needs a few extra kilograms of muscle to stand a chance of not being knocked senseless on the university rugby field. Number two: at an open day last year, a mother pressed me after my talk, on whether English was, well, suitable for her son – as, you know, a boy.

There are at least three reasons why we should address this trend. Firstly, we manifestly can’t afford to lose any applicants at all. Secondly, it can’t be good for any subject – be it Engineering (a 47% rise in women over five years there, by the way) or English – to be so overwhelmingly identified with one gender. And thirdly, the evidence suggests that once we get them through the doors men actually do disproportionately well. Maybe I have a certain bias on this matter, but it seems to me that the world needs male humanists.

The demise of the combined degree

There aren’t many places in the world where students go to university aged 18 and study only one subject for three years. Some of us would argue that this isn’t necessarily the best approach to university-level education. Some of us ucas-table-17-3have even worked to develop innovative multi-disciplinary alternatives. There are some wonderful programmes available, but the UCAS data suggests that applicants are flocking instead towards traditional single-honours models.

How do we make sense of this trend? My only hypothesis is that in the post-financial crisis, post-£9000 fees era students have become more conservative. Hence the slight shift away from humanities, and hence also a resistance towards degrees that look a little bit novel, and potentially unrecognizable to employers. That’s a great pity; more might be done to raise the profile of such programmes.

Finally, a reminder. The application figures are just the start. There’s an awful lot of work to be done between now and August, when we get a clearer sense of how our lecture theatres will look next autumn.

All we want for Christmas is a bigger pile of UCAS forms – and a farewell to 2016

As we reach Christmas, all around the country admissions officers are wishing for a few stockingmore UCAS forms to fall down the chimney. As has been well documented, applications are down across the board, and substantially so at some universities. What might the future hold in store?


A bit of horizon-scanning

I’ve learned recently (with thanks to some helpful colleagues) just how volatile application figures can be, even in the best of years. Looking at the subject-group (as defined by UCAS) of ‘Linguistics, Classics and Related’, which includes my own discipline of English, some universities have experienced drops in applications of up to 40% over an eight-year period. Others have almost doubled their applications in the same period. (I’m honestly not sure whether this is ‘classified’ information or not, so no names – but trust me, it’s true.)

Why does this happen? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Some of those with falling figures do wonderfully well in league tables. Nor is it necessarily a matter of supply and demand, since some universities that are known to be increasing their intakes are not necessarily attracting more applicants.

There’s also a discipline-level dimension to this volatility. English studies has been trending downwards for a couple of years. Meanwhile History is trending upwards. This is equally hard to explain – although we absolutely need to be asking the questions. A few years ago, when there was a premium on AAB (or, later, ABB) applicants, it seemed to me conditions were unevenly challenging across disciplines in the humanities. But that situation was more readily understandable than the dip being experienced now by English.

Faced by these circumstances, the promotion of our disciplines becomes more important than ever. I lived through a time – as a junior lecturer, in Australia – of disciplinary contraction. And today the discipline of English studies is nowehere near as significant in Australia, in terms of the numbers of studients studying it, as it is for most major UK universities. So volatility in subject choices can have very real, long-term consequences.


And a little further down the line

It’s also worth looking at trends in A-Level provision, which may in due course have knock-on effects for universities. I was struck by a report in the autumn by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, a body representing colleges that educate roughly 20% of all A-Level students in the UK.

They reported two forms of ‘narrowing’ in provision, due to funding pressures. Firstly, increasing numbers of colleges are limiting students to three subjects, whereas in the past many students would have taken four, at least for their first year. Secondly, many colleges are cutting subjects entirely, with languages departments being hit hardest. Indeed 39% had dropped courses in at least one modern foreign language between 2011 and 2016.

And so, at a time when many people might well argue that we need students entering university with a greater breadth of expertise, we’re getting a trend in the opposite direction. This may also affect the subjects these students will choose to study.


Solidarity now?

One big problem with all these trends is that they cut very differently, from one university to another, one department to another. And the Higher Education bill currently working its way through parliament is committed to a radically open marketplace, admitting – even embracing – the possibility of ‘market failure’ (or, in common terms, a university going broke).

Solidarity is tough in these conditions. If a popular university increases its intake in a discipline from an otherwise declining national pool of applicants – because, well, it can – that’s bound to have an impact somewhere down the line. At some point, the pool runs dry. As my mother used to say: ‘it’ll end in tears’.

Equally, how are universities and academics to respond if students gravitate towards a narrower range of subjects? Personally I worry about the mega-disciplines of English and History, that dominate many humanities faculties. Small disciplines – including many languages – look inefficient to managers, but they remain vital to the intellectual lives of universities. Let’s hope a sense of solidarity can survive: the kind of spirit underpinning the ‘English: Shared Futures’ conference that I will attend next July.


And that’s 2016

Thanks for reading this blog in 2016, and special thanks to those who have retweeted or publicized it in other ways. That makes a huge difference.

If nothing else, 2016 was a good year for bloggers. When I started this blog, I intended to be writing about things that interest me and a few dozen others: widening participation, research management, the academic job market, and that sort of thing. 2016 changed that a bit. If you missed them along the way, here are my top five posts for the year.

  1. I’m an immigrant, and proud of it
  2. Teaching after Trump: 8.30 a.m., 9 November 2016
  3. Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern
  4. International students: an apology
  5. Four-star impact


Looking through the eyes of university applicants

There’s only so much an ‘elite’ university can do about widening participation if applicants won’t list us on their UCAS foUCAS-1rms. Even less if they’ve decided, even before leaving primary school, that university is not for them. Or so it might seem.

UCAS released an excellent report – albeit one rather lost in the madness of mid-summer – that helps us to understand what factors influence applicants from different social groups. Through the Lens of Students: how perceptions of higher education influence applicants’ choices uses ‘POLAR’ data to classify the applicants, then breaks down universities according to their level of tariff-on-entry. The division between ‘high-tariff’ and ‘low-tariff’ is a bit basic, but helps to make some powerful points.

For a university like mine, which struggles to make headway on widening participation, it offers some valuable intelligence that might help to redirect efforts. And for someone like me, who looks out at the faces when giving open-day talks and wonders what they’re making of it all, it’s especially helpful.


‘At what age were you when you felt sure that you would apply to university?’

Applicants from higher social groups more commonly decide to apply to university at a younger age. Indeed 25% of respondents in this survey had made the decision by the age of 10. Those from lower social groups more commonly decide later.

Maybe that won’t surprise us. People with no family history of university participation, and maybe no role models, are unlikely to be setting their sights on this goal from an early age. But there’s also a correlation between the age at which this decision is made and the kind of university the applicant eventually chooses. Those choosing later are less likely to end up at a high-tariff institution.

There’s a lesson here, it seems to me, about the role that universities can play with younger people, years away from facing a UCAS form. One of the children in my daughter’s year 6 class identified the single most memorable day from seven years of primary school as being the one, three years earlier, when s/he had visited my university. The campus is only half a mile away, but many peopole from the town never set foot on it.

But while such outreach efforts can manifestly change lives, they win little credit in terms of widening participation because the effects are difficult to measure and the children are unlikely ever to apply to our university. But if OFFA was looking for meaningful national change, rather than isolated actions and entry-targets for individual institutions, this might change. At present, by the age at which potential applicants are getting seriously targeted, with access programmes and the like, too many have already decided either not to apply, or not to apply to a higher-tariff university.


‘The right accommodation is as important as the right course.’

When asked about the expected challenges of higher education, applicants from different social groups give distinctly different answers. ‘The most disadvantaged groups,’ the report states, ‘focus more on the actual university experience – the practicalities like transport and accommodation’. The most advantaged groups, meanwhile, ‘tended to focus on the importance of growing a network’.

Maybe this is just telling us the blindingly obvious: those with greater financial security have the luxury of thinking beyond material necessities. That trend will only become more pronounced with the demise of maintenance grants. But these data also suggest the hidden challenges that such students will face. They may have been deterred by higher-tariff universities due to to a perception of higher costs. And even if they do make that leap, they may not necessarily grasp what their advantaged peers seized from the outset: the value of ‘growing a network’. Successful university experiences can be measured in terms of gains in social capital as well as knowledge and skills.

For higher-tariff univerisites, the lessons here are two-fold. On the one hand, if we’re aware of the concerns that applicants bring with them to oopen days, we can better tailor our advice. On the other hand, once applicants become students we must surely accept a degree of responsibility to ensure that all students are appropriately supported to gain in every way from their university experiences.


Employers of graduates are most interested in the subject you study – the

university isn’t as important’

Advantaged applicants are 48% ‘more likely to say that employers are more interested in the university you attended than the subject you studied’. By comparison, ‘disadvantaged applicants were 30% more likely to say that the subject you studied will be more relevant to employers than where you studied.’

For a subject like mine – English – this raises the stakes. The socially advantaged students enrol in our degree safe in the knowledge that it opens all sorts of doors. It’s like they’re in on the secret of UK graduate employment: the enduring value of a good traditional academic degree. The socially disadvantaged, meanwhile, might opt for a degree that sounds ‘vocational’ but that leads to a bit of a dead-end.

That presents a really interesting marketing challenge for many of us: we’ll definitely take it on board for our open-day presentations. I think it also presents a challenge for subject associations, especially at a time when applications for some humanities disciplines (including English) are trending downwards.


‘49 per cent of disadvantaged learners cited cost as the main reason for not attending more (open days)’

So how to change perceptions – of universities and subjects alike – if we can’t even get the disadvantaged applicants onto the campus? Until we can fix this, we battle against decades’ of reputational accretion. It’s the ‘University X is not the right place for a person like me’ syndrome. The UCAS report has some good ideas in response, including travel bursaries; although, as I’ve said before, questions of institutional identities and resulting cultural diversity (or lack thereof) are seriously sticky problems. Existing WP practice and discourse is not necessarily fit for purpose.