Laurie Penny: I’ve turned 25, but the world won’t let me be a grown-up

We are old enough and ugly enough to build a better future for ourselves.

It happens without warning. At some point between the first time you hear an ironic remix of the cartoon theme tunes of your childhood and the expiration of your Young Person's Railcard, you wake up one morning and something has changed. Under the puppy fat and pimples, your face has begun to emerge, and so has your future. You have become, however inadvertently, an adult.

By the time I finish this column, I will be 25 years old. Growing up is always an odd process, but since I graduated from university, it has become more convoluted than usual. For many people my age -- including most of my friends -- secure, meaningful employment, marriage and home ownership all seem as distant and unimaginable as they were when we sat our GCSEs.

While we've been finding our first wrinkles and filling out our first dole forms, all the normal things that were supposed to make up for theuncomfortable position of suddenly having to take care of oneself have been confiscated by the forces of world finance. Little lifelines like the Future Jobs Fund and the Education Maintenance Allowance have been cut to save costs, just as university fees have been trebled by an administration happy to hand billions in subsidies to the investment banks that created the crisis.

The impetus behind this year's uprisings in Egypt has been partly ascribed to the frustration of young adults unable to afford the transition into work, marriage and independence.

It's tempting to frame all this as a generation war, an immense and predictable kick-off between the baby boomers, who enjoyed every benefit that the postwar consensus brought its fortunate children, and Generation Y, the ragtag, loosely defined group of late-cold-war babies who are old enough to have been promised a future of permanent growth and young enough to have been shafted when that future failed to emerge. This interpretation is madly convenient for many who would prefer not to engage with the realities of geopolitics. It is also wrong.

It is wrong because it allows the enormous crisis of capital and democracy sweeping Europe, the US and the Middle East to be reconfigured as an intercontinental temper tantrum. With a bit of imagination, it's easy to see all the strikes, protests, riots and revolutions accompanying the disintegration of late capitalism as merely the international equivalent of a bedroom door slammed in fury -- a worldwide whine of: "It's not fair!"

In fact, it's a little more complicated than that. Property, privilege and profit are not the sole preserve of the "power generation" now easing its way into precarious retirement.

Disaster capitalism

There are baby boomers who have lived all their lives in poverty, and baby boomers who were marching, striking and fighting against the numbing tide of disaster capitalism when today's activists were still in nappies; just as there are members of Generation Y who'd take a Jack Wills hoodie and a job at Goldman Sachs over global revolution any day.

Something larger and far more frightening is going on. The struggle going on across the world is not between old and young, but between the possessed and the dispossessed -- most of whom just happen, like 52 per cent of the world's population, to be under the age of 30.

Three years ago, I turned 22 just as the world's stock markets were tumbling. Watching the news, I realised, like so many other middle-class young people in the west, that the future we had been promised would not be delivered after all, at least not without a fight that would finish far too late.

For many of us, it is already too late. Denied the trappings of adulthood, we grew up anyway, into unemployment, anger and disillusion, into a world that didn't want us.

When I was 22, I was angry. Now that I've been 25 for a whole ten minutes, I'm still angry, but I'm also hopeful. All around me, and across the world, people are organising, educating themselves, building new, alternative communities, joining resistance movements, and starting to talk about the possibility of a future that our parents never expected.

Fed up with waiting for a better future to be delivered, we have realised that we are old enough and ugly enough to build one for ourselves. It's not a generation war -- but the power generation has every reason to be frightened.

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

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the figures in our report suggest otherwise.When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.