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What the US can teach Oxbridge

David Lammy was right to raise concerns about how few black students there are at Britain’s elite un

The coalition may have won the vote on tuition fees but it was a close call. It was rather fun to watch Nick Clegg and Vince Cable trying to wriggle out of the mess they had created for themselves. The Lib Dems' ratings fell to 8 per cent in a recent YouGov poll.

I am very concerned about the government's tuition fee proposals, which appear to have a major funding hole that no one seems to want to talk about. It remains unclear how univer­sities are supposed to get their funding over the next few years, given that the government is cutting their teaching budgets by 80 per cent. Promises of payback by graduates some time in the future won't help now. Universities are going to have to borrow on the security of the promised income stream. One possibility would be for them to issue bonds, presumably on the back of some sort of government guarantee, which would inevitably increase the deficit. The quality of education is likely to drop just as its price rises.

Why should the young be singled out for such harsh treatment - with the Education Maintenance Allowance cut and increases in tuition fees - when older folks have been protected? Old people have non-means-tested bus passes and winter fuel allowances, which means that there are many company directors earning more than £100,000 who enjoy these freebies.

The NHS, which mainly supports the elderly, has been protected from cuts for reasons that were never fully made clear. Given the fixed target for public-sector savings, this has meant that cuts elsewhere have had to be significantly ramped up. No wonder the young are cross.

Poor boy blues

Unusually, I found myself agreeing with Max Hastings, who argued in the Daily Mail: "The truth is that the money no longer exists to provide everyone with a free pass to higher education." The worry is that raising fees will further reduce access for the poor and minorities.

The Labour MP and former higher education minister David Lammy, writing in the Guardian on 6 December, reported back on responses to a series of Freedom of Information requests which suggest that getting a place at Oxford and Cambridge "remains a matter of being white, middle-class and southern". He noted that David Cameron's alma mater Brasenose College, Oxford, recruits 92 per cent of its students from the top three social classes - the sons and daughters of solicitors and accountants. The average for UK universities is 65 per cent. Lammy also found that only one British, black, Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford last year. Merton College has not admitted a single black student in five years. Black students are applying - but they are not being accepted.

Cameron reiterated concerns on 8 December that the current system had hurt social mobility, saying: "Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools - Eton and Westminster - than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals." It isn't that way where I work. More than a third of Dartmouth's students are minorities, including 7.6 per cent African Americans. Thirteen per cent of our students receive Pell Grants, which are given to students with family incomes under $20,000. Some 10 per cent are the first generation in their family to attend college.

We operate needs-blind admissions, even for foreign students, which means that if you are poor, we pay. Harvard, Princeton and Yale operate comparable policies and have similarly diverse student bodies. There are no sports or merit scholarships in the Ivy League.

US universities generally do not just look at the results of SAT test scores, but look more broadly at achievement to ensure the system doesn't work against those from poorer backgrounds. Dartmouth gives particular weight to an individual's high-school rank. Over a third of our students are first in their high-school class, the so-called valedictorians.

To put it bluntly, the idea is to ensure that there is a level playing field, so that the (smarter) black youngster with a slightly lower SAT score from a poor family in the Bronx is able to compete on more equal terms against the (dumber) rich white boy with an expensive private education and a higher SAT score achieved in no small part by lots of tutoring for the test. This is about trying to determine ability and potential. Harvard and Dartmouth take the black kid from the Bronx with an off-the-scale IQ, who will get a free ride for all four years. Oxford takes the rich white guy.

Minority report

Sally Mapstone - Oxford's pro-vice-chancellor for personnel and (lack of) equality, who is also apparently an expert in older Scots literature and book history, whatever that is - responded to Lammy the next day in the Guardian, denying discrimination.

She did not deny that Oxford has a far from diverse student body, but argued that it was not the university's fault - black candidates applied for the most popular subjects and their attainment at school was lower than whites'.

Mapstone noted that, in 2009, 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford (three As excluding general studies), compared to just 452 black students - although she didn't explain why Oxford then admitted so few of these seemingly perfect candidates.

US universities have increased diversity both in their student body and among their faculty, even in the face of threats of reverse discrimination suits by non-minorities. The universities felt that, if challenged, they could prevail in court by demonstrating the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body and the societal benefits of increasing access. That Oxford and Cambridge are apparently ignoring these benefits is a disgrace.

Lammy told me: "It is OK for Oxbridge to be elite institutions; what's not OK is for them to be elitist institutions." The worry, naturally, is that a rise in fees will compound and entrench this bias. I suspect it might be a good idea for any black student who applies to Oxford or Cambridge with three or more top grades at A-level and is rejected to forward the correspondence to the Prime Minister.

Dr Mapstone, I suggest you make sure you have a good explanation for each and every rejection when Downing Street calls, along with a well-worked-out plan to make your student body more diverse. And soon.

David Blanchflower is professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide