Lessons from the A47 (and the university bubble)

Originally published on wonkhe

As a new year gets underway, it’s hard not to feel that English higher education is in trouble. Financially it’s stood on the edge of a collective cliff, recklessly kidding itself that expansion is the answer when all the indicators suggest that contraction is inevitable. Worse still, the sector’s values, financial support and very existence sit within a liberal consensus across the West that is being repeatedly shattered by unexpected and unwelcome results of elections and plebiscites.

This political realignment has little to do with ‘left versus right’ but more a nasty nationalism that harnesses the experience of almost permanent inequality as a weapon against those of us that might worry about it, but don’t really feel it.

For years now, I’ve been doing the same presentation on change. I argue that in the face of it, the easiest thing to do is just to retreat. It’s the classic experience of reading a sociology textbook, or of sitting in a university committee meeting: detailed analysis and theory with almost no action. Being radical in thought but conservative in deed is perhaps the most dispiriting thing about the culture of working at a university, and it’s why I try to leave as often as possible.

Reflections from the coast road

I work away from home, so when I’m not in Watford, I spend my days in Norwich and my nights in Great Yarmouth. Almost without exception, this revelation is greeted with amusement, derision or horror as if I’m being transported of an evening to a far-off mythical land, instead of the 20-mile bus ride along the A47.

I began these nights in Yarmouth hiding away in B&Bs bashing away at the laptop, but given the only person I was lying to about being too busy to interact with the town was myself, I eventually started hanging out. Guest house owners, publicans, KFC staff and the other people who ride the X1 to and from Norwich: I’ve talked to people I don’t know for hours. And sure, we’ve talked about UEA, and Norwich, and Brexit, and Trump. But we’ve mainly talked about life, jobs, education and class.

The concept of the filter bubble, described vividly in Eli Pariser’s book of the same name in 2011, describes “a world where all the news you see is defined by your salary, where you live, and who your friends are”. It’s an idea that hit its imperial phase the morning after the Brexit vote, where the grim reality of the difference between our social feeds and that of the wider country hit home. HE is a big bubble at the best of times, but it’s made much worse on a campus like UEA. As is true for so many of the sixties academic theme parks, it’s imagined as a simulacrum of an idealised city. It has its own map, its own shopping centre, its own culture and its own values. But that attractiveness to the parents who fall in love with its air of contained safety is simultaneously its downside. Cut off from the realities even of remote Norfolk; it exists as a gleaming, concrete complex of elitist liberal values: a University of East Anglia that is barely a University for East Anglia.

A life of contrasts

In the Cringleford area where the university’s famous Broad sits, almost 6 in 10 young people go to university. Two-thirds of residents are ‘ABC1s’, living in properties worth double the asking price of 1996. Wage growth is real, crime is preposterously low, and council tax receipts are high. And, unlike the rest of Norfolk, Norwich itself voted Remain by quite a margin.

In the area where I stay at night, things are quite different. UKIP controls the council. The local economy is broken. Wages are in free fall. Over 70% voted Leave. Just 13% of young people will go on to higher education, and far fewer will ever attain the grades to access a place like UEA. This might be because of things that my filter bubble suggests – like university admissions policies, a lack of ‘aspiration’ or a fear of debt – but it’s more likely to be because the area is ranked 19th out of 8,414 in the index of multiple deprivation. This kind of biting economic inequality is barely discussed in my UEA bubble. We can’t see it, we don’t discuss it, and when we even visit it, we mock each other for doing so. It’s not hard to see why former Labour voters in the town have turned to English nationalism. “You talk about Equal Opportunities you lot”, said one man in Wetherspoons, “but you don’t mean for us”.

Great Yarmouth may only be a bus ride away, but Norwich and its UEA feels so very distant out on the coast. Great Yarmouth’s attitudes to work, relationships, money and popular culture are not so different to my own, but its residents assume that I can’t, don’t, or won’t understand. Only when I go for the high score on Working Class Hero from Walsall does the conversation open up. “It’s another world up there”, said one old couple to me, “and once they go up there they don’t come back”. The occasional ‘Golden Ticket’ might go to a Yarmouth resident, but ownership of the Chocolate Factory doesn’t flow back. “And we hear what them students say about us when they come to visit”, said another. “They really look down on us. They don’t understand us”.

The resentment is palpable, and visceral, yet reasonable. For the older residents, I can argue about immigration figures and life expectancy figures all I like, yet the cynicism towards me and my ilk is easily justified by the realities of inequality. But it’s the wide-eyed optimism of the college kids that’s heartbreaking: these kids know what university can do, but without contextual admissions, it’s only ever Nursing or Midwifery that will give them a ticket to UEA once they work out how expensive it is to live away from home. Worst of all, those that do become the backbone of the NHS will now take out a loan they’ll never pay back, and their inclusion in institutional statistics will mask and distort the rest of the university’s failure to offer its treasures to Norfolk’s poor. And so the cycle of resentment will continue, because while Great Yarmouth’s kids lack the grades, they’re not stupid.

Resolute responses

There are of course the traditional new year’s resolutions for the HE sector. Campaigning to remove students from the net migration target. Lobbying to protect the freedom of movement around Europe for our academics and students. Demanding that the government replaces EU funding with UK funding. These are things that we should do, and do well. But while all of this work is important, I do worry that it sounds awfully like a retreat: cries of a self-interested bubble making very clear that we’re only prepared to mind what’s going on around us as long as it doesn’t affect us.

So as well as these important goals, I have a few additional ones I’m going to try to stick to in 2017. The first is that I will suggest to my student officers that we campaign for a University for East Anglia. As well as maintaining league table positions and TEF scores, we should use the university’s immense capacity to solve the social and economic problems of the region. We should enter into partnerships with schools and colleges not just to steal away the brightest from the region, but to get the overall no- qualifications rate of school leavers olds down within the region. We should admit people from the area with low grades but high potential, and work hard to improve the economic prospects of our region rather than just our research departments. That we work to really justify our status as educational charities.

The second is that we should talk to each other more. We can all help to burst these bubbles: encouraging international students to mix with home students, encouraging academics to talk to administrators, exhorting the old to talk to the young and creating real incentives for staff and students to spend time in the community. And in pursuit of employability, we should be wary of creating more people like ‘us’, lest we lose all connection with people like ‘them’.

The third is about class. I’m immensely proud of the work that UEASU, NUS and countless other students’ unions have done in the past few years to make acts of sexual harassment dramatically less socially acceptable. It builds on anti-discrimination work that students have led on for decades – work that is always mocked at the time but that tackles unpleasant behaviours that flood nostalgic clip shows a decade later. Bluntly, we should make it really uncool in our bubbles to mock other people based on their locality or their social or economic circumstances.

It’s not that identity politics has gone ‘too far’. It’s just that it’s not gone far enough, and would do all us all some good if it could travel that bus ride along the A47 and do some levelling up in Great Yarmouth too.

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