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Why ‘separate but equal’ is a fraud

Cambridge University. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

January 15, 2019   4 mins

Racists, elitists and bigots who want to entrench inequality and injustice often make the case for what they call ‘separate but equal’ institutions for different racial, religious or social groups. They try to fool us that they do want equality, they just don’t want mixing. But every time in history that ‘separate but equal’ has been tried, it has always meant protecting the best for the dominant group, while minority groups struggle with underfunding; shuffling people away from shared public spaces so that their inconvenient differences need not disturb the way things are done.

That is why I simply cannot understand why well-meaning, normally intelligent, people on the Left keep coming back to ‘separate but equal’ as if it were anything but a fraud. The latest proposal is from Lord Adonis, who has proposed tackling the dominance of private-school pupils at Oxbridge by setting up new separate colleges for children from poor backgrounds and state schools. He tells us, in his Guardian article headlined “Oxford and Cambridge must launch new colleges for disadvantaged young people”, that this will be just like previous access efforts for women and “persecuted religious minorities” for whom separate colleges were set up in the past.

Let’s not even try to celebrate how progressive these universities were to set up special colleges for persecuted religious minorities. Until 1854, Oxford kept out anyone who wouldn’t sign the 39 articles of the Protestant faith – and the first Catholic halls were not set up until the 1890s. Those who weren’t members of the Church of England were simply not welcome in our universities for generations, and allowing Catholics to set up a college was a simple way to prevent integration.

The case for women is more complex, because women still have their own colleges at Cambridge, though no longer at Oxford. As it happens, I studied at one – New Hall, now known as Murray Edwards. I know exactly what it’s like to be in a separate but equal institution. These separate institutions are always second class, however noble their founders’ dreams.

For starters, there isn’t any money. Unlike the old colleges, the new ones don’t have land and investments dating back centuries to fund the costs of today. Book grants, subsidised food, cheap rent: forget about it. I was student union president and there was student demand for a rent strike over our high bills. The bursar showed me the books. There was no point. The place was permanently cash-strapped.

And no money means the academics are overstretched. They are often underpaid, too, and however dedicated they may be to the cause of women’s education, most have their eye on a more comfortable gig, down the hill, in the town centre, in a nice old building with a quiet courtyard and a little slice of history.

A good friend of mine used to invite girls back to the Trinity College library to see the manuscript copy of Winnie the Pooh held there. He tells me it was a great way to seal the deal; every girl loved it. At New Hall we didn’t have any rare books, and our most famous alumna was either Mel or Sue from Bake Off – I can’t remember which.

Lord Adonis has a predecessor in his fool’s errand. In the 1870s, educational reformer and clergyman Joseph Paul Brereton tried to set up a college in Oxford for poor children from the county school system. When that failed, he set it up in Cambridge, to be known as Cavendish college. It was a mile out of town. The accommodation was bad. The schools didn’t want to send their pupils to this inferior Cambridge college – they wanted to send their pupils to the proper ones. Cavendish college lasted less than 20 years.

So we already know what would happen if we did as Lord Adonis recommends. He’d take the poorest group of students, with the lowest family resources, and put them into the poorest college, least able to afford book grants or hardship funds, forced to charge market rent to pay the cost of the buildings in which people are housed. These students would be far out of town, the only place cheap enough to buy land for these new colleges, so they’d have commuting costs those town-centre elites could only imagine. They’d probably have to work to make ends meet, putting them at an academic disadvantage against those with low bills, low costs, and independent funding.

The new students would have the same potential but they wouldn’t live it out.

But the most insidious effect would be to take the pressure off the old colleges to reform. Establishing women’s colleges allowed women into Cambridge without the old colleges having to open their doors. It was several more decades before the first colleges went co-educational, and decades again until the last men’s-only college reformed.

When I matriculated at New Hall in 1999, the senior tutor told us to believe – above all – that our college wasn’t second-class, and we were not second-class students. The old colleges, she said, just don’t know what clever women look like. And the sad truth is that the existence of New Hall – and Murray Edwards – means they still don’t need to learn.

There are probably plenty of fusty old dons in Oxford and Cambridge colleges who would like Lord Adonis’ idea. It would keep the plebs out of their old traditions. It would give them a guilt-free excuse to stop worrying about access for poor children, because someone else (out of sight and out of mind) is worrying about that. In fact, they are the ones who must leave.

The funny thing is, when I first saw the headline for Lord Adonis’ article, I thought the idea was for Oxford and Cambridge to set up new sixth-form colleges, which is a brilliant idea. Hot-house kids with great potential and poor family backgrounds, either for their A-levels, or for a gap-year in between, and you have the best chance to level the playing field with those educated in our most expensive private schools.

So let’s do that instead, and leave the idea of separate-but-equal colleges where it belongs: on the scrap heap.

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.


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