The expansion of university education, which is now a relatively common feature of the working-class condition, has not and cannot deliver the goods in terms of prosperity, well-being and any other measure of progress for societies trapped within the constraints of class division.
The CWO has written on the role of education within class society previously1 , but as we know, the historic process moves on and there is always fresh material to analyse to further confirm and strengthen our case, and if necessary, to modify our perspectives. As these lines are composed, students are complaining of the prison-like conditions they are being forced to endure locked-down on campus, there is a war of words around the recent moves to eliminate “anti-capitalist” material from the classroom, and with the tsunami of unemployment on the near horizon, the government is announcing plans to provide college places for all without A levels. The re-opening of education after the lockdown has been implicated as the main driver of the virus’ spread.2 Of course, the issue of tuition fees is a perennial source of indignation and no doubt, whatever the objective reality of the fee regime as it has rapidly evolved over the years, the mere fear of debt has only served to dampen the working class intake.3 Today it is common for students to emerge with £50-60k of debt upon graduation and obviously for a certain sector of the working-class cohort this is going to be another negative point should they cross the threshold of repayment starting around £25k per year. No doubt this issue receives a great deal of attention and contributes to the lack of working-class participation, even if its real effect is somewhat muted for all but the higher earners. But looking a little further back, many of us who lived through the period will remember one particular Blair speech from the nineties, the famous theme of “Education, Education, Education”, where he claimed:
"We believe there is no greater ambition for Britain than to see a steadily rising proportion gain the huge benefits of a university education as school standards rise, meeting our goal of 50% of young adults progressing to higher education by 2010. An ambitious goal because we are ambitious for Britain."
Several years later, in 2007, the BBC asked of the Blairite educational “crusade”:
"How will it be judged? A golden age? A blizzard of gimmicks? A new lease of life for public services? A door opened for privatisation? There will be at least three and probably four general elections before today's Sure Start babies leave school and reveal the answers."
Well, the growing body of evidence suggests that the verdict is far from the gleaming vision New Labour sold us. Even though the working class are increasingly invited to participate in higher education, it is hardly the case that there is any sort of level playing field, nor has the reality of educational apartheid gone away.
"The first topic for consideration today is this: will it be feasible for the working masses to know complete emancipation as long as the education available to those masses continues to be inferior to that bestowed upon the bourgeois, or, in more general terms, as long as there exists any class, be it numerous or otherwise, which, by virtue of birth, is entitled to a superior education and a more complete instruction?"4
Thus wrote Bakunin in 1869. And today we can still see the reality of one education for one class, one for another. Private schooling perpetuates the class divide in a very obvious way, through the means to pay. For example, in the USA,
"The nation’s 33,600 private schools offer parents the ability to be more selective about the students that their child will spend their days with. “Numerous studies have shown that private schools, on the whole, offer a more positive peer environment,” says Dynarski. Part of the reason for this phenomenon is the fact that private schools can screen who they allow in and can tailor their offerings to the type of child they want coming through their doors. Plus, because parents are paying, students tend to come from a higher socio-economic class. Public schools, except some charter schools, are not allowed to pick and choose who attends."5
In the UK, in addition to receiving about £9bn in fees each year, private schools receive £200m in direct subsidies and £2.5bn in tax breaks (2019) to teach the children of the better off to be our future masters. It is debatable that they receive a “superior education and a more complete instruction”, in Bakunin’s words, but without doubt they experience a different process than that which is experienced by the vast majority of working class students, thus separating the classes and establishing an effective dividing line which is hardly undermined by the tiny influx of the offspring of the less fortunate.
"Only 4% of private school turnover is devoted to bursaries, and only 1% of private school pupils get to go for free. Some rich schools do better than this, but overall, there is no evidence of bursaries and scholarships becoming more generous, or more progressively channelled towards low-income families in recent years."6
This decidedly uneven playing field has profound social consequences. The relatively tiny minority who go to private schools, which are for the rest of us mysterious centres of privilege, some 7% of the UK’s children, are thus enabled to take the reins of power in a very direct manner, far beyond their numerical restrictions; “65% of senior judges, 49% of armed forces officers, 44% of newspaper columnists and 29% of MPs are all privately educated.” And furthermore:
"Findings reveal a ‘pipeline’ from independent schools through Oxbridge and into top jobs. An average of 17% across all top jobs came through this pathway, but this figure rises as high as 52% of senior judges, and one third of regular newspaper columnists.” “Two fifths (39%) of the elite group7 as a whole were privately educated, more than five times as many as the population at large, while a quarter (24%) had graduated from Oxbridge."8
For a short while there seemed to be some sort of opposition emerging to the private schooling scam from the Corbyn camp9 , but as we know, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition were having none of it and the swindle continues (not that the ruling class wouldn’t have found a workaround in a hypothetical scenario where private schools were abolished, be it through private tuition or other means).
Let us turn to another facet of the issue, the participation of the working class in this system. Of course, without the ability to gather our own statistics we are largely reliant on those emerging from the capitalist media, where class definitions may be subject to filters we may not accept, however, the general case can be made. Recent data demonstrates a general drift in UK society, the emergence of an impoverished sector of the working class which, perhaps not too surprisingly, is largely absent from higher education participation.
"Among state school youngsters not on free school meals, 45% go on to higher education by the age of 19. Those more disadvantaged students, eligible for free school meals, have a lower entry rate of 26%. But for "male, white British, free school meals" pupils, the figure is 13% - even lower than the year before, and to put it in context, it's below "looked after" children who have been in council care and far below those speaking English as a second language. This figure of 13% is stuck in another era compared with the success stories of other groups, such as black students, with 59% progressing to higher education, and 64% of Asian students. For sixth formers in independent schools, 85% make the step forward into higher education."10
And again, perhaps not too surprisingly, the picture is exacerbated when one only considers the elite core of university education.
"More than half of England's universities have fewer than 5% poor white students in their intakes, says an analysis of admissions figures. The report, from the National Education Opportunities Network (Neon), shows low numbers of white students from deprived areas in many top universities. There are 3% at the University of Oxford, compared with 28% at Teesside."11
Surely this abject reality based entirely on accident of birth (and here we mean class – although white working-class youngsters are now reported to be bottom of the academic pile, which right wing media have jumped on, the same class discrepancies exist across all ethnicities) places a gigantic question mark against all the official claptrap on “equal opportunities”, “equality and diversity” and the like. One could and we will, accuse the British State of extremism in its role in the creation of a pole of extreme deprivation, where,
"The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth…The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one…The government says work is the solution to poverty and points to record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction. But being in employment does not magically overcome poverty. In-work poverty is increasingly common and almost 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works. There are 2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child... Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero-hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty…The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately upon the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, children, single parents, and people with disabilities."12
If the modern version of working-class often means mere survival, trapped in a corner in low-wage, precarious employment, predated by debt and insecurity, what impact does that have upon children growing up in those communities? Who do they look up to, who are their examples to emulate? Why would they believe themselves capable of an utterly different life which they have never experienced? Well, no doubt there are intelligent and determined elements of the working class, even of its more deprived end, who do get through to university. But in relative terms, percentage terms, working class participation remains at a low level given its numerical superiority. And starting a course is not the same as finishing,
"It's time that we start accepting the working-class identity at university for what it is: a deeply disadvantaging factor. We are ridiculed, underrepresented and at greater risk of some of the most terrifying aspects of university, such as social alienation and mental illness…It's not really surprising that students from poorer families are dropping out at a much higher rate than those from more supported backgrounds, as well as being more at risk of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety while at studying."13
Perhaps anecdotal evidence carries little weight but consider the stories of the odd working class student to get to, say, Cambridge, like:
"I’ve always been a diligent worker. Having had a part-time job in a fish and chip shop throughout my A-levels, I know what hard work means. When I received my offer to study at Cambridge University I was congratulated by my colleagues for finally “making it”. In the warm heat of June, a few days before my last exam, I thought this would be the last time I would smell the fish in batter as it hit the sizzling oil. I reflected on the idea that Cambridge meant I was finally competing on a level playing field with socially and economically privileged students. Within my first four days at university, by which time tickets had already sold out for the winter ball, I realised this was not the case. Around me, students effortlessly parted with well over £100 for that one night out. I could only struggle to do the same, so I applied to work for half of the ball in order to enjoy the other half for free. It soon dawned on me that, for a working-class student, a Cambridge education did not give me equal status."14
Of course, students of working-class origin do go to university, do complete the course and can in fact attain the highest degree levels. But just as we may know of a relative who smoked sixty cigarettes a day and lived to a ripe old age, the probabilities are narrowing all the time. And of course the tribulations are far from over for the proud recipient of the hallowed degree certificate which in material terms is of very little value…the real hurdle is not the university entrance or success that governments may present as evidence of societal progress, selling the illusion to children and parents alike that it is individual merit, personal effort, which determines who gets what.
Again, this is by no means confined to the UK. Take for example the USA, arguably still the most important bastion of capitalism and key to the future of humanity, bearing in mind these figures are three years old and predate the current economic crash. However, they do illustrate the long-term trend:
"Why this country’s economic “miracle” has created such a negative feeling in so many Americans? While this economy has been harsh to many individuals of all colors, races and ethnicities, the data in a study just put out by the Sentier Research highlight just how screwed over working-class white males with a high school education have been. Over an 18-year period, from 1996 to 2014, white males in the working class have seen their pay fall by 9 percent, according to the study, which looked exclusively at white males. That’s hard to accept for virtually anyone. Take, for example, those in the 40- to 44-year-old age group, commonly a parenting age. The average pay of the working-class white male high school graduate in 1996 was $60,126; in 2014, it was $52,512. Eighteen years later, he’s making 12.7 percent less. In the 45- to 49-year-old group, it’s even worse. Their earnings fell from $62,767 to $54,303, a 13.7 percent loss in income.
To add insult to injury, this population group has been shrinking significantly over the years, therefore there is less competition for jobs, something that traditionally has elevated pay."15
Meanwhile back in the UK, the funnel for the already under-represented working class narrows ever further after graduation, again favouring the numerically tiny private school offspring of the elite, and the better off in general. The TUC report that graduates from wealthier families were more than twice as likely to start on a higher salary than their working-class peers.16 Even the brightest, most resilient pole of the working class graduate cohort are subject to this abjectly discriminatory process, where long term hopes, cultivated by an educational system largely blind to the reality of class division and its emphasis on aspiration, are cruelly dashed.
"According to research by the London School of Economics, if you’re a working-class graduate with a first class degree you’re less likely to land an elite job than a middle class graduate with a 2:2. And even if you do succeed in getting the position, you'll earn on average 16% less than your middle class counterparts. Why?"17
Well, Marxists, but likely many working-class people in general have a good idea why. The entire system is set up for the benefit of a tiny elite who are taking a huge cut of the labour of those who they employ.18 They reproduce their privilege via several channels, but much of it depends on control of the political process, control of media and other sources of information, including the education system which, far from being neutral, puts the working class at a disadvantage from the outset, and continues to present hurdle after hurdle which acts as a ring fence for the status quo.
Little wonder then that far from experiencing what Blair proclaimed; “the huge benefits of a university education”, the verdict is one of generalised disillusionment. Rather than “things can only get better” we see the opposite reality, a growing class divide where the young are bearing the brunt, and of course, the young working class are particularly on the sharp end of the incremental, insoluble capitalist profitability crisis. Even before the current Covid-19 exacerbation of the faltering economy, over 40% of UK graduates failed to obtain graduate level jobs after university. And consider many of these graduate jobs were not previously classified as such prior to the recent ballooning of graduate numbers:
"Half of university graduates are no better off than those who do not go to university, a study has found."19
Consequently, the grim reality is that far from placing a key in the hands of the working class who by dint of intellect and application manage to overcome the negatives of accident of birth,
"More than a third of 18- to 35-year-olds say they wish they had not gone to university, according to a new survey, while almost half say they would have got to where they are now without a degree."20
If a small group of working-class graduates manage to defy all the odds and obtain higher end employment, this in no way justifies the devastating effect that failure to do so has on the majority of the group. This is a blatant exercise in class discrimination whereby the naïve young and their families are subject to a process of selection which works against the many, for the few and the end result is preservation of the class system. What capitalism is doing is creating a wide layer of graduates unemployable as graduates. They are largely of our class, and are often reduced to occupying the lowest rungs on the employment ladder. Their situation is part of a generalised erosion of working class conditions, of a widening gap between the wealthy minority and the struggling majority, of the dead end that capitalism is hurtling towards be that through environmental crisis, economic crisis, imperialist confrontation between the great powers.
Despite the massive power of the ruling class to manipulate and dominate the minds of the majority, including through the educational process, this educated sector of the working class is beginning to question and ultimately reject the narrative of aspiration and social mobility which in reality is a closed door for the majority. After decades of expanding university entrance and working-class participation, even if far from proportionate, millions of people from low-income backgrounds already know that the road to financial prosperity requires far more than a university degree. The superficially attractive personal aspirational story that underpins social mobility has failed to deliver the goods. Ever more working-class graduates are being forced to acknowledge that the class system remains the barrier they cannot overcome by individual effort. They have to recognise the deep and stubborn class divisions that exist in our society, and accept reason – the only way out of class society, a class society that mutilates us from an early age and which smashes the illusions it cultivates on the rocks of economic reality is the elimination of the class divide, not a largely futile attempt to join the ranks of a distant elite.
An important and potentially key component of the future Revolutionary Party we need to construct to propagate the struggle against capitalism and its class divide will be the intellectually capable and equipped pole of our class whose life experience is goading them to reject the obvious lie of equality under capitalism and to seek alternative explanations of what is going on. The expansion of university education, which is now a relatively common feature of the working-class condition, has not and cannot deliver the goods in terms of prosperity, well-being and any other measure of progress for societies trapped within the constraints of class division. There are only two paths on offer in our period. Socialism, understood as the elimination of capitalism and its class divide, brought into being by the vast majority of non-exploiters creating the means to usher in a borderless society without wage labour, commodity production, on a global scale, or barbarism – the descent into ruin, destruction, environmental catastrophe, social collapse and ultimately the threat of the very extinction of humanity. Education under capitalism is no more capable of altering that binary reality than any other activity one can think of within the capitalist framework.
The only alternative is social revolution.
- 1leftcom.org Pg 27
- 2Figures from the latest Public Health England’s COVID-19 epidemiology surveillance summary show that educational settings now account for 45 percent of all positive cases in the UK. This is the highest level of infection of any sector of society. The report is based on data from week 39 (between 21 August and 27 September 2020) and, for some indicators, daily data up to 29 September 2020.
- 3On the 2010 anti-fees student movement, see: leftcom.org
- 7The Sutton Trust Report looked at the backgrounds of around 5000 individuals in high ranking positions.
- 9“Labour will pledge to abolish private schools if it wins the next election, after the party’s annual conference voted for a proposal to “integrate” them into the state sector. In a major policy shift, a motion approved by delegates at the gathering in Brighton said a government led by Jeremy Corbyn would “challenge the elite privilege of private schools” and claimed that “the ongoing existence of private schools is incompatible with Labour’s pledge to promote social justice”. independent.co.uk
- 14theguardian.com it goes on…”During freshers’ week, I overheard a conversation between students discussing their social networks. Their family friends ranged from various CEOs to big names in the City. These often help to “pull strings” for privileged students once they graduate. My parents cannot provide valuable connections. I would urge schools and teachers to not raise expectations: not to paint an Oxbridge degree as a working-class escape route. It’s an empty promise. I was sold a dream of upward mobility, but my one year has already exposed this as being far from the truth. I’ve learned that our class shapes our economic, cultural and social capital, and much of our potential, from birth. This is something a Cambridge degree cannot erase.” Daniella Adeluwoye is an undergraduate at Cambridge University
- 16“TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said: "If you're from a working-class family, the odds are still stacked against you. "Everyone knows that getting that dream job is too often a case of who you know, not what you know.” bbc.co.uk
- 18Establishing this figure is not at all easy; employers are not keen to reveal how they exploit the workforce. But let us take this example, the iPhone X– “the Total value of iPhone = $999. Constant capital = $370.89. Variable capital = $24.55. 35 S= $603.56 V= $24.55 C= $370.89 Total Value $999 What is the surplus value? Surplus value = (total value) – (constant capital + variable capital). $999 – ($370.89 + $24.55) = $603.56. Each time an iPhone X is sold for $999, Apple receives $603.56 of surplus value in money form. What is the rate of exploitation? s/v = 603.56/24.55 = 2458%. The rate of exploitation is 2458%. This is 25 times the rate of exploitation that is gleaned from Marx’s examples in Capital, published in 1867. Workers who make iPhones in the 21st century, in other words, are twenty-five times more exploited than textile workers in England in the 19th century.” thetricontinental.org For a relatively simple introduction to just how the capitalist system of exploitation works, the opening pages of this document are recommended; leftcom.org
- 19Research among 2,000 UK adults commissioned by Intern Tech has revealed that two fifths (41%) of degree holders have had to take an entry-level job below graduate level once they left university, this rises to 51% among 18-34-year-olds… Over six million graduates (28%) deem their degree courses outdated in relation to the present-day job market, while 45% – 9.7 million graduates – say internships and work placements have been more valuable to them than degrees in their professional life. recruitment-international.co.uk However, the reality is that once again, the working class graduates are largely frozen out of internships “Those of us who cannot afford the luxury of working without proper compensation are frozen out, with our CVs becoming increasingly dated.” theguardian.com