This essay, on the working class and the meaning of education, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 31 July 2022, under the headline “If education is all about getting a job, the humanities are left just to the rich”.
“We rented a garret, for which we paid (I think) 25s a year, bought a few second-hand forms and desks, borrowed a few chairs from the people in the house, bought a shilling’s worth of coals… and started our college.”
So remembered Joseph Greenwood, a cloth cutter in a West Yorkshire mill, about how, in 1860, he helped set up Culloden College, one of hundreds of working-class mutual improvement societies in 19th-century Britain. “We had no men of position or education connected with us,” he added, “but several of the students who had made special study of some particular subject were appointed teachers, so that the teacher of one class might be a pupil in another.”
Greenwood’s story is one of many told by Jonathan Rose in his classic The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, a magnificent history of the struggles of working people to educate themselves, from early autodidactism to the Workers’ Educational Association. For those within this tradition the significance of education was not simply in providing the means to a better job but in allowing for new ways of thinking.
“Books to me became symbols of social revolution,” observed James Clunie, a house painter who became the Labour MP for Dunfermline in the 1950s. “The miner was no longer the ‘hewer of wood and the drawer of water’ but became… a leader in his own right, advocate, writer, the equal of men.” By the time that Rose published his book in 2001, that tradition had largely ebbed away. And, in the two decades since, so has the sense of education as a means of expanding one’s mind.
Last week, Roehampton University, in south-west London, confirmed that it is going to fire and rehire half its academic workforce and sack at least 65. Nineteen courses, including classics and anthropology, are likely to be closed. It wants to concentrate more on “career-focused” learning.
It is the latest in a series of cuts to the humanities made by British universities, from languages at Aston to English literature at Sheffield Hallam. These cuts mark a transformation in the role of universities that is rooted in three trends: the introduction of the market into higher education; a view of students as consumers; and an instrumental attitude to knowledge.
The 1963 Robbins report into British higher education argued for expansion of universities on the grounds that learning was a good in itself. “The search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education,” it observed, “and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery.”
The 2010 Browne report on the funding of higher education took a very different approach, viewing the significance of universities as primarily economic. “Higher education matters,” it insisted, because it allows students to find employment with “higher wages and better job satisfaction” and “helps produce economic growth”.
The utilitarian view of education is often presented as a means of advancing working-class students by training them for the job market. What it actually does is tell working-class students to study whatever best fits them for their station in life. So, philosophy, history and literature increasingly become the playthings of the rich and privileged.
There is another way, too, in which the relationship between the working class and education has changed. A report last week from the thinktank the IPPR revealed the paucity of diversity among MPs, a subject of much debate recently. The IPPR says there is a 5% “representation gap” on ethnicity – 10% of MPs have a minority background compared to 15% of the general populace. For women, the gap between prevalence in the population and in parliament is 17% and for the working class it is 27%. The biggest gap, however, comes with education – 86% of MPs have been to university compared to 34% of the population at large. The cleavage between voters and those who govern them is expressed through the class divide but even more so through the education gap.
The proportion of women and minority MPs has increased over the past 30 years while that of working-class MPs has fallen dramatically. In the 1987-92 parliament, 28% of Labour MPs had a manufacturing, manual or unskilled job before entering parliament. By 2010, that was 10%, rising to 13% for the 2019 intake. For Tories, unsurprisingly, the figure was consistently below 5% and fell to just 1% in 2019.
Part of the reason for the decline in working-class MPs is that the institutions that gave workers a public platform, in particular trade unions, have waned. The RMT’s Mick Lynch, and his success in defending workers’ rights, has caught the public imagination. Fifty years ago, there were many Mick Lynches because the working class was more central to political life.
At the same time, education has become a marker of social difference in a novel way. As Western societies have become more technocratic, so there has developed, in the words of the political scientist David Runciman, “a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite” – bankers, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, pundits, academics. The real educational divide is not “between knowledge and ignorance” but “a clash between one world view and another”. So, education has become a marker of the Brexit divide.
All this has led some to claim education, not class, is Britain’s real political divide. It isn’t. Education is, rather, both one of the most significant expressions of the class divide and a means of obscuring it.
“If there is one man in the world who needs knowledge,” wrote the Durham collier Jack Lawson in 1932, “it is he who does the world’s most needful work and gets the least return.” That is as true today as it was 90 years ago.