England’s best universities are, some would have us believe, still re-enacting the Brideshead Revisited dream and providing enclaves of privilege for a wealthy elite to while away their time before embarking on a well-paid career. It’s true that four out of 10 students at Oxford and Cambridge previously attended fee-paying schools and that the children of professionals are 3.2 times more likely to go to high-ranking universities than their less fortunate counterparts. But the current obsession with the relationship between higher education and social class reveals a patronising attitude to working-class kids and a degraded understanding of higher education.
There’s little new in the argument that top universities both recruit from a social elite and smooth access to sought-after jobs. In 1963, the economist Baron Lionel Robbins, in his now famous report on the future of universities, argued for the expansion of higher education to people from more diverse social backgrounds with ‘ability and attainment’. He suggested there was a need for ‘increased attention to including young men and women from families with scant educational background’, pointing out that working-class ‘grammar-school boys’ may not perform as well at university admission interviews as their middle-class, privately educated peers. In 1970, the French sociologists Bourdieu and Passeron wrote Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, in which they explored the role of universities in confirming and reproducing social and economic status.
Decades later and rarely does a week go by without a news report castigating universities, and even some academic disciplines, for privileging applicants from private schools and standing in the way of the social mobility of working-class kids. In reality, however, universities today invest time and money in outreach schemes, residential ‘taster’ visits, guest speakers and student ambassadors in order to widen participation to under-represented social groups, and successive governments have relentlessly argued for individual social mobility as the primary goal of higher education.
Higher education undoubtedly allows people access to certain careers and thereby provides a route to social mobility for some. This is not to be sneered at; why shouldn’t a working-class kid aspire to any job they desire, the higher paid the better? Individuals have always had private reasons for wanting to study, and education has provided a route out of poverty for many. In the past, however, students’ personal motivations were met by largely indifferent academics, whose interest lay primarily in the knowledge they pursued and sought to convey. For many an initially instrumentally driven student, the goal of personal betterment came to incorporate a powerful desire to have access to a world of knowledge, ideas and culture. When social mobility becomes the goal of higher education, then the pursuit of knowledge is easily jettisoned in favour of some generic skills training. Working-class youth gain neither a valuable positional good nor, more importantly, the knowledge of a world beyond their immediate circumstances.
When higher education is considered to be all about securing a good job, the apparent disadvantage of being excluded is actually compounded. Today’s supposedly anti-elitist campaigners for increasing access to higher education to socially disadvantaged groups are keen for universities to make use of contextual data when assessing applicants. In other words, A-level grades shouldn’t be considered in isolation but in the context of a potential student’s postcode, family circumstances, previous schooling, whether they were in receipt of free school meals, and whether they spent time in care. What’s being argued here is that people from more disadvantaged backgrounds can’t be expected to perform as well academically and so they need to have allowances made for them. No doubt the hurdle of A-levels is easier if you have everything stacked in your favour, but the patronising assumption that some people need concessions to level the playing field is unhelpful in the extreme.