Another year, another Oxbridge access scandal. A recently-published report has revealed that private schools are still massively over-represented among Oxford and Cambridge students. Cue the outraged op-eds.
Amidst these ritual furores, the existence and structuring logic of these elite universities is never called into question. The overwhelming focus is on equal access to these seats of ruling class power. Even left-wing writers respond by prescribing quotas for students from deprived backgrounds.
That’s not to say representation doesn’t matter. Plainly, it does. Exclusion from public spaces and power is and has been a fundamental part of political and economic oppression, for people of colour as for women as for the working classes.
Nonetheless, there are obvious limits to a politics which prioritises representation within ossified and oppressive institutions. As socialists and communists, we are dedicated to abolishing capitalist social relations, and building a new system based on justice and equality. Whether it’s higher education (HE) or wider society, that means abolishing Oxbridge. Here are five reasons why.
1. A plague on higher education.
Oxbridge’s position at the top of the league tables is down to one thing above all others: money. Not only do Oxford and Cambridge have £21bn in riches, they also receive the most state funding. Of recurring HE grant funding in 2014-15, Oxford and Cambridge received the most out of any individual university, at £162m and £151m respectively, compared to an average of £24m.
Even this is not enough. As the government marketizes higher education, already pushing some universities to the brink of financial collapse, Oxford and Cambridge are colluding to destroy the last remnants of post-war collectivity. When University and College Union (UCU) members went on strike this year over an attack on their pensions, it quickly became apparent that Oxbridge colleges had been one of the key instigators. Denials from senior managers were quickly contradicted by exposés of active collusion between the two universities.
Their aim was to avoid becoming a guarantor (‘last man standing’) for financially weaker institutions. Oxbridge and its colleges have been using the (manufactured) crisis as an excuse to break away from the scheme – they are kicking out the ladder from underneath them. Left unchecked, the UK HE system will degenerate into a Darwinian free-for-all, with poorer institutions falling by the wayside while Oxbridge gets richer and richer.
2. Rentier parasites.
The attack on staff pensions was part of a wider neoliberal push to reduce staffing costs in compensation for increased liability on enormous investment projects, as they seek to become the British Ivy League. Cambridge and Oxford have in recent years issued bonds worth £600m and £750m respectively to finance huge expansion plans. Cambridge is even building a new town (‘North West Cambridge’), despite its colleges, like their counterparts in Oxford, owning most of the land in the city centre, and much beyond.
This new outpost will only exacerbate the ‘town and gown’ divide: the university grows yet richer while those beyond its walls struggle to make ends meet. This is neatly encapsulated by the fact that housing for the wider community will be sold at high rates to fund cheaper university housing. Meanwhile, thousands lounge on the council house waiting list and local rents are rising rapidly, along with homelessness.
Nor is this limited to the universities’ respective cities. A recent Guardian investigation revealed the two universities and their colleges own property amounting to £3.5bn throughout the UK (Cambridge’s Trinity College even owns the O2 Arena.) As Guy Shrubsole has pointed out, this might well mean the universities are profiting off ‘land banks’ and hoarding empty properties. The obscenity of Oxbridge is to be found less in black tie dinners than in a parasitic economic relationship of extraction and dispossession reinforcing dominant class relations.
3. Reproducing the capitalist-colonial nexus.
Oxbridge’s role within modern capitalism isn’t limited to this new rentier corporation model. It is also an engine for modern-day imperialism through its collaboration with a host of industries which extract profit at the expense of lives and livelihoods across the Global South. Despite enormous pressure from students and staff to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, in Cambridge’s case involving hunger strikes, occupations and interventions from the Labour frontbench, both sets of management have refused to budge.
No wonder. Both universities are in bed with the fossil fuel industry. A 2015 Greenpeace investigation revealed that Cambridge took £28m in funding from fossil fuel companies over a five-year period, with Oxford taking £22m. A BP-endowed institute at Cambridge aims to ‘enhance oil recovery’, while Shell sponsors research at both Oxford and Cambridge. These companies stand accused of a litany of human rights abuses across the Global South and are driving the world over the climate cliff.
Fossil fuels are only one case study; we could equally examine ties to pharmaceutical and arms industries. The aforementioned North West Cambridge site has been constructed explicitly with the ‘Cambridge phenomenon’ in mind, a fusion of capital and education which the Economist has celebrated as establishing a ‘porous membrane’ between research and business.
Knowledge production serving capital rather than people is neither new nor limited to Oxbridge. But Oxford and Cambridge sit at the top of this rotten system.
4. The training school for the global elite.
If the knowledge it produces serves to maintain the dominant mode of social relations, then the same can be said of the people who pass through its gilded halls. Oxbridge education is “a passport to the upper echelons of British power and public life.” Indeed, three-quarters of Britain’s prime ministers went to Oxbridge, while the Higher Education Policy Unit has calculated that 18 current heads of state across the globe were educated at Oxbridge.
Oxbridge dominance isn’t limited to politics. It stretches out across law and media, shaping society’s ideological apparatus. Corporations with research ties usher many other students into their ranks post-graduation, too. Sadly, girls don’t run the world – Oxbridge graduates do.
This is a core function of these institutions; it cannot be solved by access initiatives. In the social apartheid of the city, in the links to the world’s top companies, in the gowns and the candlelit dinners, a ruling class is forged.
5. A red horizon awaits.
As the left once again takes hold of the future, a new vision for higher education is emerging to replace the dominant yet decaying neoliberal model. Jamie Melrose has offered a highly promising blueprint for a new, democratic university, a vision also forged in the struggle of the strikes. Already at UCL a ‘democratisation’ campaign is making strides.
But before the new can take hold, the old must give way. As we have seen, Oxford and Cambridge are inseparable from British ruling class power: they research for its imperialist adventures, provide its managers, and maintain its class position. They are a key cog in this country’s extensive system of reaction, and must lie in the crosshairs of socialist movements if we are to abolish rather than merely alleviate capitalist social relations.
Opportunities abound for what to do with their infrastructure post-abolition. Oxbridge’s libraries are among the most well-stocked in the country, if not the world, while their science departments offer state-of-the-art technology. The universities could become public research centres producing socially beneficial knowledge; others have suggested they be purely postgraduate institutions. Their land within and beyond the city could be used for public parks and community housing. But first we must confront their power.
A red horizon awaits. Beneath those grand old buildings lies a beach.