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Artillery Row

More Skullions, fewer Lady Marys

Why are university admission stories not about the admitters?

The most important learning experience I ever had at Cambridge (for what else, in these halcyon post-Blair days of education, are we paying for but “learning experiences”?) was working for a term in a college kitchen. My academic work had petered out early and Jane, the head chef of the small theological college I attended on Jesus Lane, was short of a pot washer. There, with Jane and Carl and John, I had considerably more fun than I had had at any number of balls or parties and learned considerably more than I had in very many of my lectures. I learned, as one should at university, plenty about myself, but the most telling was what I learned about other people, specifically, Cambridge people. I would linger out the back, mostly, blasting one deep stainless-steel serving tray after another with a jet of hot water, whilst my colleagues dealt with the punters – staff and students – out front. They would then return with stories of displays of positively Bourbon entitlement from my fellow college members. Without fail, the people who treated the staff worst (and whom, in turn, would be most consistently gloriously lampooned back in the kitchen) were those who were most vociferous in the college bar or in seminars about issues of privilege and the need for great root and branch change to address the horrors of the structures we inhabit.

The problem with academics is that they are paid to observe and engage with big trends rather than little people

It may be something in the Fenland air: Porterhouse Blue remains the archetypal Cambridge novel, because despite its all-male world of swan stuffed with widgeon being long gone, the deep contempt in which the real-life improvers like Sir Godber, Zipser and Lady Mary hold the Skullions of this world is still very much alive and well. Professor Priyamvada Gopal has become something of a bogey figure for many, a result, she claims of inbuilt racism, but I suspect it’s more due to a sense of unease about her treatment of a porter who didn’t address her by her proper title; a particularly unpleasant – and all too familiar to working class Cambridge folk foolish enough not to be born the privately educated child of diplomats – insight into the real structural issues at play, and why it is that the university’s class problem refuses to go away.

Bristling loathing for those who serve them by elites is nothing new and unlikely to change, but the problem with academics in particular is that they are paid to extrapolate: to observe and engage with big trends rather than little people, giving them both a dangerous instinct to throw babies out with bath water and an astonishing inability for self-reflection.

Ironically, of course, both of these traits are what lead to the government’s catastrophic algorithm cock up: something which Professor Gopal has tweeted about at length, largely suggesting entrance being predicated on “widening participation”. The problem is that neither Gavin Williamson’s farcical grades randomiser nor Professor Gopal’s suggestion view any of this in human terms. Instead, students and would-be students are viewed as cogs in a machine, not people; types of a class with which convenient social engineering might be achieved rather than the minds of tomorrow, set to flourish in their own right. As with the kitchen staff back in 2018, wood is unseen for trees and people matter less than the positions they occupy.

Added to all this there is the pressing absurdity that whilst the undergraduate student body is viewed annually as ripe for rearrangement according to the whims of anyone with an agenda, nobody suggests the same for the postgraduate body (often the domain of wealthy but not necessarily as intellectually competitive Americans) or the academic staff (a huge proportion of whom, like Professor Gopal, are indeed products of private education) or, God forbid, even the ancillary staff who actually keep the colleges going (drawn, disproportionately, from those villages and estates beyond Mill Road or Addenbrookes or Arbury – the cast iron limits of the Cantabrigian mental and physical landscape). All these shape the culture of a college much more than those undergraduates who flit through in a whirlwind of angst over a mere three or four years. Academics make much fuss about who they let in: they must be very sad this obscures and precludes any debate about who they are.

The very valid critique of the algorithm fiasco was that it rode roughshod over the hopes and dreams of individual students, punished by the crude inhumanity of having their future determined by a mathematical equation. Indeed, the most effective castigation of it all was the sight of those individuals, already navigating the rocky route to adulthood, bravely talking of the crashing waves of disappointment they had suffered. Their names mattered too: Mithushan, Abby, David; people, not statistics. They are individuals and, in an ideal world, would always have been treated by academics, colleges and the universities they were applying to accordingly, not just as shorthand demographic facts for point scoring on Twitter. Yet, that was exactly what they became, not least among academics wanting to make hobby horses of these all too personal tragedies. In short, very few remedies posited from within Oxbridge appeared genuinely keen on treating would-be recipients of donnish benevolence and/or malice as people, rather the people they’d briefly teach were much more conveniently, and comfortingly, viewed as an amorphous demographic mass.

Optimist that I am, I sincerely doubt anything will change for the better as a result of all this. There is a tendency to paint the two ancient English universities as being unique in their zeal for identitarianism – I’m not sure I agree. While their structures render their absurdities more open to justified ridicule, they have long been opinion followers rather than makers. They merely mirror the wider tendency to treat and judge people – be they star students or the person who serves the chips at lunch – on the basis of identikit tropes rather than those knottier and more complex things like character or personality.

If treating a student body as a mass no greater than the sum of its demographic parts is a good (or, more like an inevitable) thing, why not do similar to the Senior Combination Room? In fact, I’d go one step further: set up John and Carl and Jane amidst the port and mahogany and have the academics handing out chips. I certainly know which demographic taught me more amongst those cobbled lanes by the Cam.

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