From time to time the arts remind us of a history that we may have forgotten, or relate to us a history we may not have known. Such was the case with the play Blue Stockings that I saw recently at the Globe Theatre. The play is written by Jessica Swale and based on the novel Blue Stockings by Jane Robinson. The story of the founding of Girton College in Cambridge in 1869 for women scholars is compelling and relevant as it touches upon many of the issues that surround access to education in our times.
What struck me after watching this play was that women across the world are still fighting for access to education. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted that it was only in 1948 that the first women graduated from Cambridge University. Women around the world are continuing to fight for access, equality and quality of education, but it takes a case like that of Malala Yousafzai for a significant portion of the media and public bodies to focus on the issue. Blue Stockings shows that this country has come a long way in 65 years. The play also prompted me to consider access to education and quality of education in modern Britain.
Access to quality education, especially at the tertiary level, is becoming increasingly difficult as higher education costs soar. As a result, many students who wish to continue their education at the university level have had to look at alternate ways in which to achieve their goals. One of those alternatives is by continuing their education on a part-time basis. As a student of Birkbeck for the past few years, I believe that you could not have a more diverse student population, and the diversity of both students and lecturers is a big attraction here at Birkbeck. Most recently, however, we have had more younger students who in previous years would perhaps have been horror-struck even to contemplate having to attend Birkbeck, which traditionally has had an older student body.
While I welcome sitting in a classroom with young students who express fresh, optimistic ideas and approaches, I cannot help but wonder if these students are being properly cared for by my beloved institution. Are they enjoying what is on offer at Birkbeck? The Birkbeck experience is not necessarily the same as it would be in the type of institution they had perhaps envisioned themselves attending, but it does provide quality education for all its students.
Education at the university level certainly is not the right choice for everyone, nor is it a necessity. We all know, or should know, that a university education does not guarantee employment and if you wish to increase and/or ensure a chance of employment then a vocational or technical institution may be a wiser option. However, universities offer the opportunity for students to explore varying interests and, as such, attendance should be accessible to those students who wish to pursue higher education. In short, our education system needs to ensure that there is equal access to quality education irrespective of financial means for everyone.
As a person who was unable to complete university in my youth, I am delighted that Birkbeck runs the programme that it does. I believe that education around the globe at any level should not be exclusive or restricted to the privileged but that all should have access to education according to their abilities and desire. Right here at home, I am particularly interested in British students attaining a level of education that allows them to contribute to British society in a meaningful way and to be competitive in the global market.
For centuries, the halls of Oxford, Durham or Cambridge were closed to students not belonging to the dominant religious, ethnic and social groups in England. Male students from these “other” groups began graduating from Cambridge in the late 19th century. The women of Cambridge had to wait until after WWII.
Blue Stockings reminds us that to preserve the legacy of the women of Girton College is to support all groups who seek access to be educated.