Asked to rank the importance of efficiency, optimisation, welfare, opportunity and equality, I was the only one that placed equality first. The rest of my undergraduate tutor class placed equality last. To a man, to a woman. A politics class came up with the order that the market not people came first.
There was a huge difference between us. They had all been to private school whilst I had been in the state system. I was on a full grant at the grace of the tax payer, whilst they were dependent on a willing and existent family largesse. This was my first choice university, while for most of them it was a consolation having not obtained the grades for Oxford or Cambridge.
I had myself phoned the admissions helpline for one of the colleges at Oxford. My concern was they required a good grade in French. This seemed rather unreasonable as I wanted to read Economics and Politics (PPE). Nor took into account half the lesson time was the French teacher being told she was fat, ugly and probably still a virgin by my less aspiring classmates. They were failing, much as their parents had failed before them. I knew education was my chance not to stay chained to a housing estate by my own ignorance.
Needless to say, I never even reached how poor foreign languages was at my school. The impression was no one actually used this phone line to discuss admission to one of the best colleges in the world. Contrast that with my alma mater. The admission tutor in all his professional career had never heard of my school. Reading my application, he was intrigued enough to lower the usually expected grade requirement.
Even though I more than passed that, there were still hundreds of applicants for every single place with the same grades as myself. My back story, the first person from my family to apply, a school that had never sent an applicant before, in addition to my grades helped me get in.
The reason for mentioning this today, is twofold. It is blog action day on inequality. The other is today I saw a photo of the man I am named after. This John planned to be a physicist, however his father disapproved of education. To a point he threw books at his own son’s head. Rather than becoming despondent, he took refuge in the local library and with the help of teachers applied successfully to university. Tuition fees did not exist, and a generous grant system that covered living costs existed.
By contrast my grant did not even cover the rent. The generosity of the state had not matched the expansion in higher education. The student loan I could take out amounted to £5 a day to live on in the late 1990s.
At University you want the best and brightest going to receive the best education possible. The system should also attract them from the whole of society. Money should not be a barrier, nor parental expectation. Low expectation by schools and the community should not either. There was a reason my degree was never going to be in a foreign language.
Unless we are concerned about equality, too many children will not receive the education that will unlock their potential and allow them to thrive in both the labour market and civil society. Things will never change, if only the elite are able to attend elite universities.
That was the unexpected lesson I learnt in that politics tutorial, so many years ago. It is a lesson too few countries want to learn. It is the price you pay when you treat people as money rather than citizens.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog