Higher education: is excellence the enemy of social mobility?

An interesting discusion has got under way in Scotland, promoted in part by The Herald newspaper. The issue is this: can excellence in higher education, of the kind that allows universities to compete with the best in the world, only be achieved at the expense of access for the disadvantaged? Or to put the question in another way, are quality and equality inherently incompatible?

What has prompted this discussion is the current recession and the impact it has had on higher education funding. As university budgets are cut and, as a result, not everything that institutions previously did is now affordable, what are the consequences? Taking the example of Glasgow University, the Herald reports that it is cutting a number of subject areas that may have particularly attracted the disadvantaged, while protecting and developing other areas that allow the university to compete with world leaders in research. The newspaper suggests that this throws up the following question for universities.

‘Is their primary function to be an agent of social justice and mobility, or do they need to concentrate on competing with Oxford and Cambridge and the US Ivy League universities in research and innovation?’

The newspaper also quotes the president of NUS Scotland, who puts the dilemma as follows.

‘I think we should be honest about our priorities. At the end of the day, the point of the university has changed. If you look at when only 5% of the population went, that was about knowledge, discovery, pushing boundaries, people talked about the crème de la crème. That’s not the purpose of universities now – it is about social mobility and people changing their lives.’

If there is a suggestion here that high quality or excellence is a luxury that may not be affordable and therefore should not be a priority  in difficult economic times, then this has other consequences. If a country cannot demonstrate that its universities offer programmes of teaching and research that can compete with the best in the world, it will not be an attractive location for investment, and even those companies that are locally based may look to graduates from elsewhere for the more demanding jobs.

If the participants in the higher education debate in Scotland and Ireland start to suggest that a high volume university sector with lower quality ambitions is an appropriate compromise during difficult times, and that funding or resourcing can properly reflect this, they have not understood how the world is going. It is a dangerous policy direction to suggest, and the price may be paid not just by universities but by the country as a whole. Higher education access should always remain a top priority; but maintaining it at the expense of excellence is making a dangerous and false choice. There really are no cheap options for a modern university system.

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7 Comments on “Higher education: is excellence the enemy of social mobility?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    What you are really talking about here is Science. And with the best will in the world the way Glasgow could do much would be to only take the grads of other universities. We’ve the same issue. Which to put simply is a very ill directed secondary level which causes third level to spend a quantity of expensive time bringing the students up to speed.
    On the wider point about College being an engine of social change. Well you’d have to say that X-factor is seen as doing more in the minds of the general population, for we’ve arrived to the point where a Masters is absolutely required and with no good reason.
    I’m coming to the notion that it might be a good idea if a tax was levied on all companies and corporations, call it the education tithe. For it’s absolutely insane that the only thing that truly benefits pays nothing nor encounter any risk either. And none of that rubbish like in the States where Harvard gets a disproportion of ‘gifts’.
    A simple way around this would be to use carrot and stick, where there is a levy/tax of 3% of turnover or a tax deduction of 4% if 6% of profit is handed over to the Tithes Office. Which could butter your bread a bit, but evenly. Why push all the costs onto student.

  2. Eugene Gath Says:

    I do not agree that quality and equality are incompatible. It does however taking sigificiant resources. In many of the top North American universities great efforts are made to include all minorty groups by way of scholarships, admission policy etc.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    There is probably no conclusive answer to the equality versus quality paradigm, still one should aim at a better understanding of how a true democratic culture *must* accommodate both of these broad, but often only loosely understood ideals in educational policy. Also it might be worth remembering that Bologna, the first university, was more collegial and egalitarian than the surrounding society, *equality* seems to be in the university’s genetic patrimony


    • While agreeing with the substance of your comment, Anna, I’ll have to pick you up on one issue. People often talk about Bologna as the ‘first university’, but that really isn’t accurate. The university of Constantinople was, if I recall, founded in the 5th century, more than half a millennium earlier than Bologna. And some reader may be able to give us dates for Clonmacnoise, also much older than Bologna.

      However, I think Bologna is the oldest *surviving* university.

      • anna notaro Says:

        Yes, you are right Bologna is probably only the oldest European university, although even that is not certain, some scholars have in fact called Salerno medical school (where medicine was studied and practised by women too,and philosophy, theology and law were also taught), medieval Europe’s first university. For the record the school flourished between the 10th and 13th cen. Pff enough history for today :)

  4. Al Says:

    Maybe it would be a lot cheaper to award aristocratic titles instead of third level qualifications???

    Lord Al of Allingham
    Baron of the vale of social justice
    Which includes both the lands of excellence and equality…

  5. Perry Share Says:

    See for example National College of Ireland’s recent decision (20 Jan 2011) to close down their School of Community Studies – ten staff laid off and courses of interest to the Docklands communities terminated.


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