“The helter-skelter expansion of higher education in the past twenty-five years – and the elevation of educational success into the gold standard of social esteem – has been one of the most important, and least understood, developments in British society. It has been a liberation for many and for others a symptom of their declining status”.
The debate on David Goodhart’s new book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, has been heating up across the media in recent weeks.
Writing began before the EU Referendum, the liberal commentariat’s collective head-scratching over Brexit, Trump, and the new politics of identity, and so Goodhart now has a captive audience for ideas he has held for well over a decade.
For a project of such ambitious scope, covering issues from immigration to education, family life to globalisation, and social attitudes to economics, Goodhart perhaps inevitably veers from moments of real insight to instances of avoidable contrarianism. Many of the latter instances have been seized upon and picked apart by critical liberal reviewers clearly uncomfortable with his conclusions and perhaps angry at Goodhart’s track record of picking apart liberal conventional wisdom, not least on immigration. Wonks, academics, and leaders in the higher education sector will no doubt join that crowd, particularly as Goodhart argues that “the [new political] divide is about education and mobility and, in fact, the combination of the two”.
Like many worthy books of social and critical commentary, The Road to Somewhere’s real value is in the questions it asks and the very real problems it identifies. The quote with which we began is just one of many undeniable and yet challenging facts upon which Goodhart builds his model of ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’.
Somewhere or Anywhere
Goodhart argues that the new distinction in British public life – long left unspoken but made explicit by the ugly and divisive debate over Europe – is between people who primarily identify with Somewhere, and people who primarily identify with Anywhere. Goodhart argues that roughly a quarter of the population identifies with Anywhere, and roughly half with Somewhere. The remaining quarter are at the extreme ends of either worldview and those ‘in-between’.
Who are the Anywheres and Somewheres? “The most typical Anywhere is a liberally-inclined graduate”, we are told. Anywheres:
- “generally belong to the mobile minority who went to a residential university and then into a professional job, usually without returning to the place they were brought up”
- “predominate among decision makers and opinion formers”
- “are highly concentrated in London and the other main metropolitan centres, as well as university towns”
- “broadly welcome change and are not nostalgic for a lost Britain”
- “value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition”
What about Somewheres?
- “the average Somewhere is on a middling income, having left school before doing A-levels”
- “tend to be older and come from the more rooted middle and lower sections of society, from small towns and suburbia”
- “do not generally welcome change… older Somewheres are nostalgic for a lost Britain”
- “place a high value of security and familiarity, and have strong group attachments”
- “regret the passing of a more structured and tradition bound world”
That Anywheres and Somewheres are first and foremost decided by their education is no accident – it is the quality that determines many of their other characteristics. It is also the quality that has been shown to best predict how one voted in the EU referendum. The importance of attending a “residential” or higher tariff university is nonetheless a critical sub-distinction, and there are a substantial number of Somewhere graduates: 30% of graduates want immigration reduced ‘a lot’, and roughly the same proportion voted Leave last year.
Goodhart is a keen student of social attitude surveys, analysis of which form some of the strongest sections of the book, and underline the importance of identity over economics when considering the issues at hand. For graduate Anywheres like me (and probably you too, dear readers of Wonkhe), it can be surprising to see how ‘somewhere attitudes’ have remained prevalent. In spite of overwhelmingly majority acceptance of many aspects of social liberalisation (on divorce, sex, women’s and gay rights, race etc.), half of white British people admit that they might feel uncomfortable if the proportion of ethnic minorities in their neighbourhood gets “too high”; 62% of Britons say Britain “sometimes feels like a foreign country”.
Anywheres and Somewheres should not be confused with their ‘extreme wings’: at one end, the “Global Villagers” of ultra-affluent, highly mobile and successful professionals (think of the top academics and vice chancellors) who Goodhart argues “would support open borders if it were politically feasible”; at the other, the “Hard Authoritarians” who continue to openly admit prejudice against minorities. Social attitude surveys show that open bigotry has stubbornly stuck with a very small minority of the UK population (less than 5%).
Education, Education, Education
The Road to Somewhere has some of its best and worst moments in the two chapters that Goodhart devotes to the changing relationship between education and the economy – what he describes as “the achievement society and its discontents”. Education is fundamental to Somewhere and Anywhere identities because to ‘be educated’ is to give oneself an acquired identity, as opposed to an ascribed one.
Indeed, Goodhart argues that the Somewhere-Anywhere dichotomy has only emerged in the past two decades because of profound changes in our education system; primarily the expansion of residential higher education, but also the tragic failures in non-university post-compulsory education policy, and the growing political emphasis on meritocracy and social mobility rather than class equality.
Goodhart cites Alison Wolf’s invaluable insights on the imbalances in our current education system, particularly in the realm of technical and further education. If ever there were clear evidence that Anywheres get preferential treatment in public policy, it’s in post-compulsory education. Adding together teaching grants, tuition fee subsidies, and research grants, public spending on higher education is roughly £17 billion a year. The Adult Skills Budget, cut by 41% between 2009 and 2015, is only £1.5 billion. The apprenticeship levy, introduced last week, will only raise an extra £2.5 billion on top.
Source: IFS, Long-run comparisons of spending per pupil across different stages of education
Anyone who suggests that the inverse trends in further and higher education spending, policy, and attention are not systematically related is simply in denial. As Alison Wolf points out:
“If employers are being provided with an ever expanding graduate population for free, then university training to be very bad indeed before it becomes rational to pay for an alternative”
From the point of view of students and young people themselves, higher education’s expansion has inevitably diluted the esteem of all other routes. Goodhart is particularly perceptive when emphasising the importance of feeling socially valued, regardless of your level of education attainment. Implicit in the high social value obtained by entering university (and particularly in entering a certain kind of university) is the lack of value given to someone who does not.
This isn’t just imagined – almost all well-paid and hitherto though ‘respectable’ professions now require degrees. For Goodhart, this selection progress is now as brutal as the eleven-plus test once was for the post-war generation. Academic selection’s sinister impact on social inequality has not been eliminated, merely delayed to an older age. The widely cited ‘hour-glass’ binary labour market only confirms this growing divide in the education system: university or bust; winner or loser; Anywhere or Somewhere.
And perhaps ultimately, Remain or Leave. When you dig down into the geography of the referendum results, the connection between education and geography becomes increasingly clear. Outside London and Scotland, all of the highest voting Remain areas are either home to a university or have a very high entry rate to university. Most of the highest voting Leave areas not only do not have a university; they are remote from any university whatsoever. In fact, they are more likely to be home to FE colleges whose public funding has been slashed since 2010.
Highest % Remain and Leave votes by local authority area (exc. Scotland and London). Highlighted areas have a university presence.
Mobility, residentialism, and aspiration
“Unusually by international standards British universities are overwhelmingly residential or boarding universities.. Getting on means getting out, shaking the Somewhere dust off one’s boots and forming new bonds with one’s fellow Anywheres in London or another metropolitan centre”.
The question of geographical mobility also raises questions about social divisions within the higher education; between those universities that educate more Anywheres than Somewheres, and those that educate more Somewheres than Anywheres.
The geographical and entry-tariff extremes are clear. More than 70% of students at the universities of Durham and Exeter travel more than one hundred miles to be there. Less than 5% of students have travelled that far to attend the University of Bedfordshire and the University of the West of Scotland. 66% of students at MillionPlus universities live within thirty miles of their institution, compared to only 27% at Russell Group universities.
Geographically mobile students at institutions such as Durham, Exeter, St Andrews and Bristol, while surrounded by others who are similarly mobile, are still in the minority. 60% of British people still live within 20 miles of where lived when they were fourteen. But the divide in education levels is stark. 22% of graduates live within fifteen minutes distance of their mother, compared to 47% of those with only GCSEs.
This is also very expensive, and public funding for student maintenance is yet another example of Anywheres winning over Somewheres. Never mind the transition from student grants to loans; consider the outright scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance in colleges.
And even with this support, an education system based on elite mobility further increases the financial and social capital barriers to participation. Research by the National Education Opportunities Network suggests that students without financial means are more likely to consider studying closer to home, even if it is not the optimal course or institution. Those that do decide to make a trip of one hundred miles or more despite their limited means are just more likely to drop out.
And all the while, recent higher education reforms, including the removal of student number controls, the increase in tuition fees, the cutting of maintenance grants, and the clampdown on international students, are further polarising the sector. Anywheres and those with Anywhere aspirations are probably more likely than ever to study at a smaller group of relatively high tariff universities, with booming surpluses, large numbers of international students, superstar researchers and shiny new buildings.
Meanwhile, those universities that have traditionally been most accepting of Somewheres are those at the greatest risk of cutting back or even closure. They’ve seen the heaviest cuts in income across the board: a smaller share of the research pot, huge declines in international student recruitment, and now a squeeze on domestic and EU student income. Increasingly it seems that, whatever our policy intentions, mass higher education in the UK is not, as Goodhart argues “elite high education written a little larger”.
Welcome to the University of… where?
Even a liberally minded, card-carrying Anywhere like myself can still be startled by hearing for the first time that the University of Nottingham can now be found in Ningbo, China, or that you can walk to the University of Coventry, or Ulster, or Liverpool from our Wonkhe offices in Central London. Modern British universities, despite their rapid residentialism, were founded on the implicit assumption of being for somewhere. Now, universities are very comfortable to literally be anywhere; or rather, the epitome of Anywhere: London.
That’s all well and good, but let’s not pretend there isn’t a cost. As Paul Greatrix highlights in reflecting on Nottingham’s successful ventures abroad, there is an opportunity cost. Though many vice chancellors will argue that a university can be both international and rooted in a local community, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that there aren’t trade-offs here, as well as a simple question of focus and priorities.
The question of setting up branch campuses in Europe in an effort to defend universities’ Anywhere position and values may thus prove telling. It will be hard not to look like that some universities are running away from their communities, indeed from a country that they believe showed last June to be ignorant, backwards and inward-looking. Universities will continue to be, as Goodhart argues, “a vocal lobby for Anywhere openness”.
All that said, it doesn’t entirely fit the usual mould. Some universities have made second homes in isolated ‘Somewhere’ communities such as Scarborough, Truro or Stockton-on-Tees.
The choice before us
All this is not to say that there aren’t flaws in some of Goodhart’s criticisms of universities. He overextends his argument by implying that the government’s clampdown on international student recruitment is somehow reasonable, by citing the government’s problematic accusations of ‘overstayers’ and ignoring polling on the public’s receptiveness to students who bring in money and stay only temporarily.
Goodhart is also clearly swayed by the growing and largely unevidenced narrative that universities are monocultural and political intolerant environments. Perhaps to be fair to him, he’s not the only one to have read too much into a self-selecting Times Higher Education poll in 2015, as well as other media hysteria about political-correctness-gone-mad on campus.
Yet Goodhart is keen to stress that he does not think Anywhere-ness internationalism is wrong, something his critics seem all too desperate to accuse him of. Indeed, anyone who can recite an anecdote about dining at an Oxford college with a former Cabinet Secretary and BBC Director General could hardly think otherwise. But his analysis shows us that universities’ Anywhereness must be recognised as a choice; it has an opportunity cost (both literal and figurative); and that Brexit and the political outlook of the current government might well be a result of what we’ve neglected in making those choices.
Remainers (myself included) like to accuse the Brexit project of trying to have its cake and eat it. But perhaps we are sometimes just as guilty of believing that it is possible to be both somewhere and anywhere. You can’t be in two places at once, or least, you can’t have the full benefits of two places at once. To chose confident and unashamed internationalism as a top priority is a choice to move civic engagement down the same priorities list.
This is hardly an original argument. It’s one that has been made on Wonkhe at least three or four times in the last year. But still, the response veers between arguing that ‘we can have it all’, saying that this is simply not universities’ problem, or simply nodding in agreement and subsequently doing nothing.
There are exceptions, some which might point the way forward. The HEFCE-funded Leading Places programme is still very small and under-publicised (so much so that one gets a 404 error on its LGA webpage). Bolton and London South Bank Universities are taking the opportunity of ‘area reviews’ to enter into strategic collaborations or outright mergers with further education colleges. Some universities are using the lessons learned from extensive engagement in schools – ordained by access agreements – to broaden their outreach work in local communities. Some of the most successful examples of university-sponsored schools, such as Brompton Academy (sponsored by the University of Kent) are shining lights to follow.
But there is scope to be bolder. In Wales, Kirsty Williams is taking the opportunity of funding and regulatory reform to urge a renewal of universities’ social contract and responsibilities to local communities:
It is certainly incumbent on universities to reflect on the distance between campus and community exposed by the referendum. The urgency of now is to recapture a civic mission…
Are we confident that the communities that host our universities do not see those institutions as belonging to other people? How are Welsh universities owned, rooted and responsible to their region and nation? How will they help address issues of social cohesion, active citizenship and informed debate in the months and years to come?
These are contemporary challenges but also a call to recapture the spirit of our national education mission.
The same could be said for the whole of the UK, especially for those universities that reside in or near Brexit-voting areas. But it’d be nice to hear it from the so-called elite universities too. As Williams points out, too much of the sector’s communications before, during, and since the referendum has focused almost exclusively on self-interest and the thorny issues of income and prestige.
The majority of the population believe (correctly) that universities operate from a position of social and economic privilege. It’d be nice to see that privilege and influence deployed for selfless and socially responsible endeavours: actively advocating a rebalancing of higher and further education funding; getting stuck into delivering high-quality degree apprenticeships; fewer remote campuses in Shoreditch in favour of one in Skegness.
This is not only a challenge to universities themselves. A sector actively encouraged to organise itself around market competition, and choice will inevitably neglect wider social responsibilities. In higher education, this means prioritising the protection of market position over community outreach; international markets over domestic ones; and perhaps greater homogeneity over more socially useful and diverse provision.
More controversially, perhaps these solutions need to think beyond merely getting more young people into university, or at least less on full-time undergraduate degrees straight out of school. It would be a stretch to say that the rapid expansion of higher education, or perhaps it imprecise execution, led directly to Brexit. But Goodhart convincingly demonstrates that in the Somewhere-Anywhere divide, it has had massive – and still poorly understood – consequences for us all.