Show Hide image

The rich buying places at university? They already do, says Laurie Penny

David Willetts's proposal merely formalises the process of purchasing access that already exists.

Higher-education policy is where you can see the trick happening: the brazenness of Tory retrenchment policies in the field of social mobility being phrased as an inevitability, when they are surgically ideological. The creation of the funding deficit in British higher education was a calculated decision by this government, as the £4bn saving generated could have been recouped many times over by pursuing corporate tax avoidance, or imposing a small levy on financial transactions. Our flatlining economy has benefited not one jot from the government's determination to farm 80 per cent of university teaching costs out to the private sector and triple student fees.

Instead, vice chancellors and their industry partners are being encouraged to remodel our university system into a profit playground funded by the financial aristocracy for the quasi-exclusive enjoyment of its children.The strategy is Machiavellian in its opportunism, Trojan in its deafness to criticism. The academy is being rebuilt to reward enterprise rather than enquiry, offering its services at cost not to the most able, but to those most able to pay.

This week, the Universities Minister, David Willetts, has announced another twist. At the most competitive universities, wealthy failed applicants who would otherwise have been turned away will be given the chance to buy their way in with yearly fees of £28,000. By "the most competitive universities," Willetts means -- everyone means -- Oxford and Cambridge. Rich underacheivers will now be able to buy places at Oxford and Cambridge, along with a few other top Russell Group institutions that are a shoo-in for jobs in finance, research, business, science, politics, media and the creative industries. So much for meritocracy.

At the same time, at London Metropolitan University -- a college with more black students than the entire Russell Group put together (21 Oxbridge colleges admitted none in 2009) and an essential route out of poverty for thousands of inner London teenagers -- 70 per cent of courses are being cut. Last night, London Met students who occupied part of the university in protest at this funding decision were forcibly evicted by police and bailiffs. The writing is on the wall for social mobility in this country.

The move to let rich students buy their way into Oxbridge has been condemned across the board, including by senior Liberal Democrats charging madly at the last lifeboats off the sinking ship of centre-right equivocation. David Willetts doesn't give a damn. As I write, he is on the radio continuing to fabricate reasons why these changes are, in fact, "progressive". The move, many naysayers claim, is entirely against the spirit of education in Britain. But is it?

Let's face facts: the rich have been buying their children places at top universities for decades. They do this by buying into the private school system, paying thousands to send Leo and Jemima to feeder colleges that pride themselves on Oxbridge entrance, on making sure everyone passes the exams, on buffing even the dullest sixth-former to parade gloss for Oxbridge interviews.

In my final year at a British private school, over 30 kids were handheld through the application process for Oxford or Cambridge, whereas in most state schools a maximum of one or two begin the gruelling process, usually without the considerable staff support that we enjoyed.

Of those 30, about half were successful, and at least four or five of those were -- excuse my French -- thick as congealed slurry on the bridle path. They were dull, unimaginative posh kids who had no real interest in learning , who were just good at passing exams with the right training. What they had was the confidence to shine at interviews, and most importantly, the right kind of swagger to fit in. They had grown up being told they belonged at Oxford or Cambridge. As a consequence, they were deemed Oxbridge material, whereas thousands of state school pupils were not.

Of course, for every posh dunce who makes it into Oxford or Cambridge, there's a successful state school applicant who worked their butt off because they wanted to study the subject of their dreams at one of the world's top universities. Nonetheless, merit is already far from the only criterion for entry into Oxbridge.

In that sense, Willetts's "second bite of the cherry" strategy is not a new idea: it merely formalises the process of purchasing access to top institutions for the offspring of wealthy parents, many of whom might identify a saving: £84,000 for three years at Oxford is peanuts compared to £248,850 for five years at Eton. Like an unprofitable social-studies degree, social mobility in Britain has just been given formal notice of discontinuation, but the writing has been on the wall for many years.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
Show Hide image

“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496