Soden, Robert, b.1955; The Construction of Prospect Building No.4, University of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear

This essay, on the relationship between class, race and geography in Britain, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on antibiotics, global poverty and the broken market.) It was published on 26 January 2020, under the headline ‘No history, no languages… the end of humanities only deepens divides’.

Sunderland University wants to become more ‘career-focused’. So it is to shut down all its language, politics and history courses and promote instead degrees that ‘align with particular employment sectors’. It’s an illustration of what happens when universities turn into businesses, and their ethos is defined by the market. It’s also symbolic of the divisions that now rend Britain’s social fabric.

Just as Sunderland was announcing its makeover, the Sutton Trust was publishing a report on the geography of social mobility. The report, Elites in the UK: Pulling Away?, confirmed that social mobility has declined in recent decades. It showed that the majority of the socially mobile have built their careers close to home while the majority of those who come from privileged backgrounds tend to move greater distances in search of upward mobility. London is barely open to people from working-class backgrounds – three-quarters of those who move to London to access good jobs are already part of the elite.

None of this should come as a surprise. The distinctive character of London has long been known. There has been growing recognition, too, that the issue is not simply one of London versus the rest of the country, but also a broader divide between big cities and smaller towns.

From education to health, from transport to culture, the thinktank Centre for Towns argues, those living in cities have advantages and opportunities often denied to those in towns. If you live in a small town, you’re likely to have to travel almost three times as far to reach a hospital, and almost twice as far to see a GP or dentist as someone in a large city. There will probably be fewer pubs, a more rundown high street and less accessible public transport. Of course, the experience of living in a small town is different in affluent areas of Oxfordshire or Surrey than in Wales or the north-east. And those without money or jobs are far less able to take advantage of the opportunities of a city than those with affluence.

Nevertheless, city life seems to mitigate the impact of class and poverty. Consider, for instance, children receiving free school meals (FSM), a proxy for poverty. In England as a whole, fewer than a quarter of 15-year-olds receiving FSM go on to university, as compared with 41% of non-FSM children. In Inner London, however, that gap is much smaller – 45% of FSM children go on to university, compared with 53% of non-FSM children. If you are a poor child in London, you have a better chance of attending university than if you are not poor but from outside London.

The city effect could also explain what might otherwise seem counter-intuitive results for minority children. There has been much discussion about the lack of black students at Oxbridge. When it comes to universities as a whole, though, black students are overrepresented. Black people make up 3% of the UK population – but 8% of university students, and 4% of students in the Russell Group of top universities. Much of this might be related to black communities being concentrated in large cities, especially London, where they make up 13.3% of the population.

All this explains why Sunderland University’s decision is so depressing. It’s a university that, like many in the north-east, caters to students from the local area. Its repurposing seems to suggest that the study of the humanities should be reserved for the children of the rich, who can afford to move, while local working-class students should be confined to ‘vocational’ subjects. Existing divisions will only deepen.

There is a complex relationship in Britain between class, race and geography. But the language we use to discuss these issues, and the categories we employ, often ignores that complexity. The postmortem into Labour’s electoral defeat, for instance, has pit those who argue that the party needs to ignore metropolitan liberals and become more socially conservative to address the needs of the ‘traditional working class’ against those who suggest that Labour should give up on its traditional supporters and concentrate instead on the ‘professional middle classes, together with the young, and black and minority ethnic voters, who are [now] Labour’s base’. It’s a debate that ignores both political needs and sociological realities. The current debate over white privilege is equally depressing, polarised as it is between those who insist that racism is no longer an issue in Britain and those who imagine that all white people, whether shelf-stackers or company bosses, possess ‘privilege’.

It would seem that it’s not just potential students in Sunderland who are being deprived of deeper thinking into sociology, history and politics.



The image is ‘The Construction of Prospect Building No. 4, University of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear’ by Robert Soden.


  1. damon

    Just a point on the percentage of black people going to university.

    “61% of ethnic minority kids in England – and 90% in London – begin Year 1 in schools where ethnic minorities are the majority of the student body”.

    So I’m presuming that the black community has a younger age profile than the average in the country.
    Meaning more young people.

    “There is a complex relationship in Britain between class, race and geography.”
    There certainly is. Given that big cities seem to have such advantages, why the disproportionate amount of violent youth crime in some of them? A 16 year old was knifed to death at East Croydon station yesterday.
    It’s just a fifteen minute train journey from there into Victoria station.
    The boys involved in this subculture of knives and violence are actually quite privileged.

  2. damon

    Talking about social division – I don’t often hear any comment on why so many schools in London have this racial makeup. It will reflect the local population to a degree, but can’t be the whole story.
    I think a lot of people are also avoiding sending their children to the local school where BAME kids are the majority. A couple of BAME female Labour politicians come to mind as well. They sent their sons to private schools instead of the local comprehensive.
    My guess is that this is quite widespread and could be even called a kind of mild (but not talked about very much), London school apartheid.
    Also, since white children are a minority in many of these schools, where does that leave the left wing definition of racism? Where it’s said to be “power plus prejudice”. In a diverse society, you can’t always presume that white people have the power. Or even particular privilege.
    Alastair Stewart lost his pretty quickly when he rowed online with a black person.
    Also, where are all the black teachers?
    I hear plenty of complaints about the white ones in their dealings with black boys.

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