A few weeks ago, to fill some time at the start of a screen meeting while waiting for the ‘room’ to fill, I told an anecdote from my own teenage years. A schoolfriend of mine, the first in his family to go to university, got the train home during the first term. He walked home from the station and knocked on the door. His father opened it. My friend reported that he said “Hello, our dad”, and received the reply “we’ll have none of that bloody posh talk round here”. It’s a story which always gets a laugh, but as I said, and others agreed, it’s desperately sad: there is a lot going on in those thirteen words on both sides: love, doubts, inadequacy, uncertainty, distancing.
My colleague Charles Mundye, who leads our excellent Humanities department, referred me in the meeting chat to Tony Harrison’s collection of poems, The School of Eloquence. Over the next weekend, I dug out the collection, which addresses (amongst other things) this theme of the generational gap between a working-class northern father and the poet son, the latter now living in New York. In the poem ‘The Queen’s English’, Harrison writes “Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen’s Hotel/that grandish pile of swank in City Square/Too posh for me! He said (though he dressed well) If you weren’t wi’ me now ah’d nivver dare!”. As in my anecdote, there’s a lot going on in that verse, and the throwaway ‘though he dressed well’ is working hard. Charles pointed out that the title of the collection (The School of Eloquence) is itself a reference to the name given to one of the underground working-class societies described and celebrated in E P Thompson’s great classic account The Making of the English Working Class. Family, politics, generational changes, education, language and love – all interacting in complex ways.
Time change. The twenty-first century is not the mid twentieth century. Society is more complex in so many ways. Those old industrial certainties have disappeared. One of Harrison’s poems in the collection is dedicated to Richard Hoggart, the great cultural critic. Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy was one of the first accounts to explore the intersections of culture, class, education and mass media. Hoggart saw many of the working-class communities he recognised from his childhood in Leeds being chipped away by a mass, homogenising culture. In the two generations which followed the publication of the book, of course, economic and technological change were potent forces which further dissolved working class cultures and communities. The boundaries of class, and the contours of inequality, are now as a result different, cut through with very different divisions. But the themes are recognisable, and they are human as much as societal, about how we deal with change, shape our relationships.
Higher education is deeply implicated in the change. It has expanded enormously in the last half century. One of the themes which runs through The School of Eloquence is that whilst education is something that has separated Harrison from his father, it’s also something his father desperately wanted for his son because (‘Punchline’) it gave him something denied “For the kids who never made it through the schools”. When Harrison and Hoggart went to university (in both cases, the University of Leeds) less than one in twenty young people went to university. The figure is now almost two in five, and similar figures are reported in advanced economies all around the world. This opens up a different set of delineations. Bobby Duffy, whose 2021 book Generations looks at the evidence on generational division in contemporary Britain and (spoiler alert) largely argues that other divisions are more important, argues that “the rapid rise in young people with degrees is a success that should be celebrated, but it is difficult to make such a fundamental change without knock-on effects” (p 74).
Broadly speaking, there are two major policy arguments in favour of the long-term expansion of higher education. The first goes like this: as technological innovation, climate change, artificial intelligence and digitisation transform yet more aspects of our lives, we will need yet more adults able to engage confidently with the different society which is coming into being around us. We will need, to put it sharply, more smart people able to grapple with tough problems. The second is different and it goes like this: if we don’t widen participation, we will embed deep inequality. Higher education opens more doors for more young people to more rewarding jobs. Johnny Rich, who leads the Engineering Professors Council, draws attention to a worrying slippage in language around policy here. He sees the language of ‘widening participation’ (a responsibility for universities) becoming the language of ‘fair access’ (involved less active university responsibility) and then ‘opportunity’ (a responsibility of individuals).
The world of the twenty-first century is not the world of the twentieth. If a lot has happened to universities as they have grown and developed, yet more has happened to communities. The expansion of higher education has been accompanied by regional policies (or more accurately, the absence of regional policies) which have created deeper and deeper imbalances in geography. Learning is immensely valuable, and it’s always, in every generation, our best hope for individuals and society. Those of us who believe in the mission of higher education as one of the drivers of a better society, in the values of learning and the importance of spreading it as widely as possible, need to proclaim it as one of the most important ingredients not just in creating opportunity but in sharing it; a school of eloquence in itself.