Saturday, 3 July 2010

University of Exeter: Home of Snobbery

I have been working quite a bit in South-West England and have stayed recently in Exeter, the capital of Devon, though the local authority for the city is breaking away from the rest of the county.  It is a pleasant enough city with nice pedestrian areas and gardens, a pleasant cathedral and some decent pubs.  It also has a university, not an ancient one, being set up in 1955 so a decade ahead of the 'plate glass' universities of the mid-late 1960s expansion.  It achieved some reputation in the 1980s, simply because of its advertising campaign which used the typography of the Carlsberg beer company and even lifted their slogan (I imagine with permission) as 'Probably the best university in the world' in the place of 'best beer'.  Aside from that it seems to have trundled along not attracting much attention, though I have been told that its teacher-training branch is rated third after Oxford and Cambridge, that sort of fact does not penetrate the newspapers, I guess unless you read specific sections.  Its Chancellor is Floella Benjamin, born in Trinidad, known to millions as a television presenter on children's programmes, and notable in that fact because she was a black presenter in the 1970s.  Recently she was made a baroness and now sits in the House of Lords for the Liberal Democrats.

It seems ironic that Floella is Chancellor of a university of a city which seems to have one of the least ethnically diverse populations in the UK.  I have not been to Plymouth yet, it is farther South-West of Exeter and has a post-1992 university.  In the city you do see some West Asian and East Asian students, but very few people from other ethnic groups and certainly very few outside the student population.  I imagine that in part this was one reason why the actress Emma Thompson's adopted son, Tindyebwa Agaba, originally from Rwanda where his entire biological family was killed in the genocide, found studying at the university so hard.  When he graduated in 2009, Thompson spoke about the racism he had faced and assisted with a cultural awareness event at the university.

It does not seem that racism is the only problem that Exeter has faced.  Having stayed in hotels in Exeter on and off over the past year, I have encountered a few new staff and even some mature students, usually there for doctoral course meetings who have pointed out the real class consciousness of the university.  One man working as a manager there explained how he was suffering because he was felt to 'not be appropriate' for a managerial role because his family was skilled working class and on repeated occasions he had been told to apply for lower grade jobs. Having faced similar challenges in the past year, I lent a sympathetic ear. He said that it was incredibly frustrating that the concern seemed to be more with his background and there was disregard for his skills and experience.  One woman of the same grade who droned on about her aga cooker (the cheapest costs £6000) and got upset because he would not sit there and let her lecture him on the 'best way' to do everything.  When he tried to have a dialogue and share ideas she ended the meeting.  Naturally you meet arrogant, self-obsessed people in all jobs but you would expect slightly more open-minded attitudes in a university.

I subsequently met a parent, from Bournemouth, whose son had applied to the university and she said she was glad he had not got in, because she felt everyone 'looked down their noses' at you if you were not of a particular social status and did not have the trappings like a large 4x4 vehicle.  Obviously the location of the university in pretty rural part of the UK and in the southern part which is the most expensive (though it is cheaper in Devon than, say in Hampshire or Berkshire, farther East), you might expect it to attract people from a certain social class and certainly the students I encountered, even one working in a pub, are very much upper middle class or even upper class.  The University of Exeter is in step with the national trend in having a sizeable majority of female students, so the place (I wandered around the campus one day out of interest, it lies close to a pub I like) is full of flicky haired women with tops from the lacrosse club or sailing club or riding club; no-one seemed to be in the usual sort of societies you expect at a university.  The student union shop stocks 'The Lady' and 'Horse and Hounds', not the usual magazines students at university read.

Given the demands that I have noted before from journalists, parents and others that in this age of over 40% of 18-year olds going to university, there is a greater distinction made between different 'qualities' of university, favouring something even more divisive than the old polytechnic/university divide scrapped in 1992, I am surprised that Exeter University has not made more of its elitist approach.  It is never going to have the old buildings of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, etc., but it clearly has the same kind of mindset of these places (I lived in Oxford for two years and gatecrashed the odd University lecture and debate and blagged my way into a number of bars at different colleges, just for the hell of it). 

Maybe there is some website or Facebook connection which advises families of the elites that if their child has not got into Oxford of Cambridge, Exeter is the best place to send them to mix with the 'right' kind of people whether students or staff.  I imagine given the hard economic times, though Exeter University seemed to do well out of the last funding round, the university cannot be seen to be too off-putting to potential students from all kinds of backgrounds, they are simply too valuable in terms of fees.  However, as that Bournemouth mother found out, I would warn any parent who is not upper middle class or higher, to avoid the University of Exeter like the plague.  There may be advantages in your child hob-nobbing with the elites, but from the people I have heard from, they may be compelled to do a lot of 'forelock tugging' and be deferential to staff and other students unless they want to be ostracised.  If you are upper middle class or above, and your beloved has not manage to make Oxbridge, then I can assure you that they will find much the same culture, albeit in more modern buildings (and the university is currently the biggest building site in the South-West region so must be doing well financially) that they would find in Oxford or Cambridge, mixing with the 'right' kind of people and taught and administered by staff who are drawn from the 'appropriate' social class. 

I know we now have a government which favours the privileged, but I am surprised that given their desire for greater social mobility, and even Lord Mandelson emphasised this back in 2008 when reviewing the future of universities, the government did not bring the University of Exeter more to book.  It seems to be one institution that has benefited financially but has a culture which is opposed to social mobility and instead fosters social division and providing benefits to the already privileged.  Clearly the journalists whining for more distinction between universities are not looking hard enough.  Perhaps they know about Exeter but only let their friends into its approach rather than write about it openly.  Now I am no longer working in the South-West I wonder if I will come across other universities, which quietly are drawing sharp dividing lines in terms of who they admit and who they employ.  I do feel we have a duty to 'name and shame'.  Universities in my day were about opportunities for those who could take them on their ability not simply who their parents were and I fear we are running rapidly away from those days to them simply helping privileged children to be more privileged still.


Anonymous said...

You haven't encountered half of it. Feel lucky that you have never met a Belgian woman called Anna Verhamme - hammer by name, hammer by nature. She was made the "change manager" of Exeter University. She is supposed to be this hot shot doing the reorganisation of the university, but right up until the last moment she had told anyone anything but that was supposed to be "flexible", everyone should be ready to change at the moment she said, without warning. The stress that caused for people, you can imagine.

She had already set herself up a nice job in the business school even before the change happened, but everyone else worried if they'd have a job still. She is one of those bosses who loves going round telling people that they are lucky to have a job and should be grateful for it. She thinks everyone except herself and her special friends are lazy. A very nasty piece of work and it says a lot about Exeter university that they chose her to be in charge of all the changes. It is clear she had no abilities in doing that. They could have left it to the students and got a better deal.

Anonymous said...

It looks like it's not just the staff who have a problem with being bigoted, the students are just like that too, so says The Guardian

and the Daily Telegraph blog

Clearly someone needs to sort the place out. It sounds like some kind of land that time forgot when it comes to universities.