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Inequality and the University

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Inequality and the University

British politics has been strangely quiet about the topic of inequality. The UN Development Report of 2013 shows that Britain is now one of the most unequal countries in the world, having been one of the most equal in the 1970s. The bottom twenty per cent of the population is worse off than in any comparable Western country and Britain shares with Australia the widest ratio of inequality between the top 20% and the bottom 20%.

These inequalities are evident in the experiences of young people. According to Child Poverty Action Group, 27% of young people in Britain live in poverty and this is predicted to rise over the course of the government’s austerity measures. Further, a recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that young people in their twenties have experienced a 12% reduction in income over the last five years, while those over the age of 60 have received a 3% increase. Paradoxically, a recent Mori report has shown that support for the Conservatives has grown among those aged up to 30yrs while it has declined in the older generation.

Part of the explanation of these findings is likely to be that young people have less direct experience of the wider system of inequality and their place within it. In addition, they have been subject to a uniformly neoliberal political socialisation whether by New Labour or the present coalition government. However, the current attack on the system of public higher education brings these issues into sharp relief.

The denial of an inclusive public interest in higher education, its marketisation, and its reduction to a private interest in human capital are having a profound impact upon the meaning of a university. At the same time, as universities seek to extract income from students and other activities, the university has become a microcosm illustrating the inequalities of the wider society in which it is located.

A report by the student occupation at Warwick University – Protect the Public University Warwick – shows the same disparity in earnings and also the way in which pressure is placed upon low-paid workers within the university community to provide value for money in the name of students. At the same time, university vice-chancellors have supported governments in raising the cost of education for the very same students.

In calling attention to these issues, the students have called for a dialogue, but it seems that vice-chancellors are keener to contribute to widening inequalities than to the discussion of them.

Universities are defined by their pursuit of knowledge and understanding through dialogue. It is an indictment of the contemporary higher education climate that dialogue about issues facing them as institutions is so muted. This failure is not only a failure of vice-chancellors and senior managements, but also of academics within universities who will not themselves speak out.

Students at Warwick University are to be applauded for continuing the insistent calls for dialogue on these issues initiated by the student protests in 2010. What would it take for more academics to learn from the courage displayed by these students and themselves publically contribute to the dialogue on widening inequality and the place of the university in its reproduction?

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