Don’t let social class divide our campuses

Private schools are becoming antisocial enclaves for the super rich. The same could happen to our be

It may have been unfortunate timing, but the university where I have been studying for a Master's chose the day before the publication of Lord Browne's report into higher education funding to start advertising a paid marketing internship to support the International Women's Day 2011 planning group. I wonder how many people are involved in the group and what they are planning: an exhibition? A seminar? Whatever it is, it requires an intern, overseen by a staff mentor, to devise a plan to communicate "key themes" to the media.

Is the planning group really necessary? At a time when vice-chancellors are expecting cuts to teaching budgets, might a university not be better off focusing resources elsewhere? I was recently asked to teach some seminars for the princely sum of £13.82 an hour, the standard rate for postgraduate teachers. I shall probably do it anyway out of interest, but it will, in effect, be at a loss.

I have received a great deal of information in the past year about the university's diversity or equality services and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual network. Whatever universities are short of these days, it's not diversity officers. Nor administrative staff, who still shuffle paper requests through pigeonholes and staple submission forms to the front of duplicate paper essays. What is wrong with a PDF?

Home schooling

It has struck me, having come back to university after 20 years, that the system is perverse. On one side are the advantages of technology, fully exploited by the better lecturers and in the library system. When I was an undergraduate, the most advanced technology you could expect a student to get hold of was a typewriter. Today's students can check out new laptops from the library. The amount of information available online has transformed the ways in which we learn. Lecture notes and reading lists are put in electronic spaces; the entire catalogue of library journals and many digital books are accessible from laptops and computers at home; more and more lectures are being recorded and put online, too.

David Willetts, the universities minister, and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, are right to suggest that people could take two-year degrees at different stages of their lives and shun the conventional, three-year residential model, because the information is now so easily accessible from home. A company called Resource Development International is already helping many universities to produce distance-learning Master's and undergraduate courses.

The traditionalists will say - and do say - that it "isn't the same"; that students need the campus experience and the face-to-face interaction with academics. I am not so sure. Face-to-face interaction with some academics can be a soul-destroying experience. I tried to attend lectures in person because I liked the drama of them.

It was entertaining to see how different people communicate - and I liked pretending I was 21 again. But I knew I was wasting my time. In many instances, I would have been much better off at home with an online course guide and a book. And some of the academics would have been better off getting their ideas and research up to date, rather than delivering that tired old lecture again. If students are going to be asked to pay more, many British academics are going to have to raise their standards.

Some vice-chancellors claim that students will miss out on the social mixing that occurs in the residential system. But, just as in state secondaries, different classes and races tend to stick together. The Italians join the Italian society, the medics do rag week, posh boys join the Bullingdon Club. That has always been the case. The million+ group, which speaks for newer universities and former polytechnics, has warned of a two-tier system, with wealthier students clustered in expensive universities - extensions of private boarding schools such as Eton - and poorer students on cheaper courses.

No friends in high places

I found myself talking to a lady about Eton in a steam room the other day. She had seemed nice enough until she started talking about schools. She was bemoaning how few children there were for her son to play with on the peninsula where she lived.

I was puzzled because I had seen a lovely-looking primary school down there. Surely, there were local families with children? "Ah, yes," she replied. "There are three good primaries but he went to . . ." She named an expensive private school out of her area.

I was wondering how to respond to this - you pointlessly take your child out of the community and then complain he doesn't have friends to play with? - when the lady added proudly: "Now, he's at Eton." She went on to explain that he now had one friend from Eton in the area, which made life so much easier, because there was someone to do things with.

It's rare that I can think of nothing to say, but I really couldn't, I was so embarrassed for her. Why would you want to spend all that money making sure your child has no friends to play with as he grows up? Is it in case he gets contaminated by a state-school child?

I wonder whether private schools are increasingly dominated by parents with more money than sense. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies published this year showed that private-school fees have hugely outstripped increases in median and high incomes over the past two decades, with day-school fees growing by 83 per cent in real terms and boarding fees by 65 per cent.

These schools must be becoming antisocial enclaves, the preserve of the exceedingly rich from here and abroad. It would be a great shame if that were to happen to our best universities, too. Perhaps some of those diversity officers could apply their minds to that.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?