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9 June 2021updated 18 Aug 2021 7:06am

Gavin Willamson’s attack on Oxford students shows his warped priorities

Rather than haranguing students over the removal of a portrait of the Queen, Williamson should focus on the country’s education crisis.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Today is the seventh anniversary of the death of celebrated comedian Rik Mayall. I mention this only because Mayall was the mastermind behind the cult 1980s sitcom The Young Ones, a show about how ridiculous, outrageous and barely functioning students were in those days. 

This wasn’t a new idea. Nearly a decade earlier John Sullivan (of Only Fools and Horses fame) had written Citizen Smith on pretty much the same premise, with an archetypal lefty as the central character – an earnest young Marxist whose hero was Che Guevara. 

And Sullivan himself was riffing off books such as Simon Raven’s novel Places Where They Sing, published in 1970, which features a socialist firebrand student shouting “Marx” and “Lenin” at the moment of sexual climax (instead of “Oh God”). 

All of which is to say that the notion of universities being full of ridiculously left-wing young people making silly, over-idealistic choices is so well-established it was already a comedic cliché 40 years ago. 

This week, students at Magdalen College, Oxford continued this noble tradition by voting to remove a portrait of the Queen from the Middle Common Room because Her Majesty “represents recent colonial history”. 

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The story, which has all the hallmarks of a classic culture wars row (young people from an elitist institution rebuking a much-loved British figure or institution – in this case both), made the front page of today’s Daily Mail under the headline “Outrage as Oxford students vote to axe Queen”. It also attracted the attention of the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who tweeted: 

The first thing to note about this story is that Magdalen is just one of 39 Oxford colleges, and the Middle Common Room from which the portrait was removed is only for postgraduate students. Magdalen College has about 175 postgraduates, so even if every single one of them voted to make a statement against the monarchy (which they did not), that would represent around 0.7 per cent of Oxford’s total student population – hardly enough to be considered representative of the university or its students.  

[see also: Gavin Williamson’s proposals on free speech and universities are a half-baked mess]

But even if it were, is this manufactured row really worthy of a cabinet minister’s time?  

One might imagine Williamson would have more than enough to occupy himself with, what with his department’s long-awaited school catch-up plan receiving less than a tenth of the funding that the government’s own adviser Kevan Collins thought necessary (prompting his resignation last week). Pupils have lost months of education due to school closures and a lack of resources for online learning, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates will cost them £40,000 each in lost earnings over their lifetimes. But thanks in part to Williamson’s failure to properly make the case to the Treasury, the funds allocated to the catch-up tutoring programme represent just £50 per pupil per year. 

[see also: How England’s school catch-up funding falls £13.6bn short]

Williamson might also be expected to have his mind on the looming grades crisis, which threatens to cause chaos and misery for thousands of teenagers for a second year running. After last year’s algorithm debacle, the Department for Education decided that GCSE and A-level grades will be awarded by teachers this summer. Already, the alarm has been sounded about potential bias, with pupils from highly-educated households predicted to receive more generous grades from their teachers, based on research from last year. Grades haven’t even been awarded yet, but a legal challenge is already under way relating to last year’s marks. 

But if it’s universities the Education Secretary is interested in, he could widen his focus from Magdalen’s 175 postgrads to the student population as a whole. Millions of young people have spent the past 15 months paying full tuition fees for courses and university experiences that have been upended beyond all recognition by lockdown and the pandemic. It is no wonder so many are demanding at least part of their money back. With the average student now graduating with £40,000 of debt, surely that should be a concern for the Education Secretary?

Or, in a week when violence against women is once more in the headlines after a man pleaded guilty to the kidnap and rape of Sarah Everard, maybe he could turn his mind to the scandal of how British universities handle claims of sexual assault. Women from 15 universities signed an open letter last month calling for reform over the handling of sexual violence allegations in higher education institutions, following a long list of harrowing accounts of campus rape culture. A recent book by researchers John Edmonds and Eva Tutchell, Unsafe Spaces: Ending Sexual Abuse in Universities, estimates there are a minimum of 50,000 sexual assaults at UK universities every year. Perhaps Williamson could do something about that.  

And yet despite these pressing concerns – and despite evidence this week from King’s College London that most Britons do not feel reluctant to talk to colleagues or classmates about culture war issues – it is a print of the Queen in a private room removed by a handful of enthusiastically anti-imperialist students that concerns him.  

That decision, as the president of Magdalen College pointed out, is theirs to make and is itself a demonstration of free expression and the right to debate contentious issues. You don’t have to agree that the Queen is a symbol of colonialism to respect someone else’s right to hold that opinion. Tolerating other people’s views – however bizarre and misguided you might find them – is, after all, the point of free speech. 

But even if you believe, for some reason, that the attitudes of Magdalen students represent a dangerous campaign to rewrite history and subvert academic freedom, even if you think there is something about this particular generation of rebellious young people that is different from every previous generation that has scandalised their elders, that still doesn’t excuse Williamson’s warped priorities. 

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on what should be considered an embarrassment to the country. For some of us that might be the Education Secretary, at a moment of national crisis, spending his time haranguing students over how they decorate their common room.

[see also: Gavin Williamson: The dunce of Westminster]