The elitism challenge

It is probably true to say that my generation was the last to experience higher education as something clearly elitist. I was in a cohort that probably contained not much more than 5 per cent of my age group. All of us were destined for relative prosperity and good fortune.

But soon after we had passed through the system and into our lucrative careers, society’s assumptions changed. What followed was what is sometimes described as the ‘massification‘ of higher education, with an increasing proportion of the population going to universities and colleges. In some countries, including Ireland, this proportion has exceeded 50 per cent. So what was once social elitism, with students typically coming from families with a tradition of higher education as well as other social advantages, now became intellectual elitism, in which an ever larger proportion of people were invited to participate in the experience of high value learning and scholarship.

But massification has created various problems. Some people have questioned the value of higher education as something that most people could expect to experience; partly because the high participation rates were said to be putting traditional professions and skills at risk where these did not require a university degree, and partly because the tsunami of degree courses developed in recent decades contained some or more not considered to be intellectually rigorous. The degree course offered in the 1990s by Thames Valley University in kite flying was often presented as an illustration of this decline in academic value.

The response to massification has not necessarily always been to argue there should be fewer university students. There has also been a tendency to suggest that the concentration of resources on a small number of elite universities would allow these to preserve traditional high value academic programmes; other less well resourced universities would then run courses for large numbers of those not quite gifted enough to enter the elite. In this way massification could remain, but re-ordered into streams for the very good and for the less good or maybe less fortunate. The latter is an important qualification, because once you have an elite set of institutions the capacity of the wealthy to buy up educational resources from an early age would almost inevitably create as much a social claim on this elite as an intellectual one.

This is not the way to go. It is wrong because it is elitist in the wrong (bad) sense; because it would quickly compromise upward social mobility; because traditional higher education is not necessarily more valuable to society than more innovative versions; because it would almost certainly produce an education system much less rooted in the communities it is supposed to serve. It may well be that higher education can become saturated, admitting more students than is good for society; an analysis of this would not be misplaced. But if there are to be adjustments, these should not compromise the understanding that all members of society, where they have the intellectual capacity, should have an equal claim on university membership, or that courses and research programmes should be supported and funded on the basis of excellence rather than on the traditions and political pull of their host institutions. Any form of concentration of resources on elite institutions undermines all of these objectives and leaves society less well off.

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9 Comments on “The elitism challenge”

  1. no-name Says:

    Many who are employed on the secretarial side of universities were employed at a time when fewer people had access to higher education. There is not yet a visible resetting of expectations for new entrants to careers in university administration. In a country where more than 50 percent of the population exercises access to higher education, it seems odd that universities do not have an expectation that new hires to administrative functions should be university educated. If universities do not expect their secretaries to be university educated, what other institutions should? Who will be available to take up those posts if all of the intellectual elite is assumed to be employed elsewhere?

  2. V.H Says:

    I’m not so sure your first statement is that valid outside Ireland. Even in NI once Queens opened up the mix was representative if you got that far in 2nd level. But remember 2nd level wasn’t open until ’68 and social controls were deployed well into the ’80s if not the 90s by streaming kids reflecting their family position/wealth in the country areas. This of course then continues through their lives especially if they enter the civil service.
    When you were in Hull you must have encountered an entirely different branch of society who on Ireland wouldn’t darken the doors of any higher level institution. A branch who had access at least a generation by then, if not two generations.
    The current difficulties has seen a profound rebooting of society here. We have reset back 30 years if not 60. Where those that survived and perhaps thrived in the 1950 are the same today. People that have little awareness that what occuring is an ethnic cleansing.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    I wonder in which parallel universe the author of The Telegraph piece (link to ‘considered’ in above post) lives in when he writes:

    “Things are as they are primarily because education is a part of society where market forces have played little role. … But when a whole segment of economic activity is scarcely touched by market forces then all sorts of peculiar things happen”.

    Really?? *banging head on desk in despair*

  4. Eddie Says:

    This VC should read carefully what his Chancellor Sir Ian Wood said a few days ago, as reported in Scotsman:

    http://www.scotsman.com/news/education/sir-ian-wood-develop-scots-vocational-education-1-3078083

    That made a few people to sit up and listen to him when it was reported in the above paper that “Oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood hit out at the “ingrained and ill-informed” view that vocational training was an inferior option to university, as he launched the report aimed at getting more young Scots into work”

    The problem with this VC’s article is that it is full of esoteric arguments with an overtone of wishful thinking. Sounds like a small bunch talking to themselves!

    Give me anytime the wise words of Sir Ian Wood.

    • no-name Says:

      “The Scottish Government wants to learn from places such as Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, where there is greater respect for vocational qualifications.”

      It is easy to support this desire as expressed in the article. University participation would not need to be as extensive as it is and as inclusive as some would advocate if there were proper alternative higher qualifications that were both available and esteemed. The article continues:

      “In his report, Sir Ian criticised some business leaders for failing to help train and employ school-leavers and his second report, due next spring, will focus on that issue.”

      Employers (and the general public) do not seem to expect employees to be educated, or competent, in public-facing roles in Ireland, either. The views of business and the public provide the easiest explanation of why the Irish government cares so little about ensuring that taxi drivers know the areas they work sufficiently to provide minimally acceptable service, for example. No other transport in Ireland on rail or road, public or private, is any better serviced than taxis. That infrastructural transporation in Ireland is so deeply imbued with incompetence is natural to take as a sign that incompetence is the norm in all spheres.

      • Eddie Says:

        “..as some would advocate if there were proper alternative higher qualifications that were both available and esteemed”

        Well. before these many polytechnics became “universities” post1992, these polytechnics offered excellent vocational-oriented HNDs and HNCs as well as undergraduate degrees that had practitioners focus in the UK. Indeed, RGIT, Paisley College of Technology, Napier Polytechnic in Scotland and a number of polytechnics in England like the Newcastle Polytechnic ( from where Apple’s senior VP and designer of the Apple IPhone user interface: Sir Jonathan Ive took his HND in design) produced excellent professionals that Sir Ian would have approved. These polytechnics were in a hurry to become “universities” in 1992, casting away those decades long vocational ethos.

        Having said the above, I am glad my local two old universities: UCL and Imperial are thriving as reported in the recent QS world university ranking.

        • V.H Says:

          Yes, but the problem was the education&qualification from the poly was seen as lower than the same course from a university. And for years pay&promotions tracked that distinction.

          • Eddie Says:

            Not really. It was the argument used by poly directors to “bridge” they called the “binary divide”. The real truth was that the directors of Polys did not want to be controlled by the local authorities (LEAs) in England and the Scottish office in Scotland. for these Central Institutions in Scotlland;

            the paypackets of university VCs were so much better and the governors had so much light touch, deference to the VC etc..-so attractive indeed! The case for university status for polys was pushed hard by these directors.with these attractions waiting for them!!

            The London Met fiasco would not have happened at all if the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA)were in place and they governed very well the Polytechnic of North London, then the choice institution for so many courses in engineering and sciences-particularly in polymers.which had international reputation. Thames Poly was known for its communications course-the Nobel Laureate Kao discovered carried out the optical fibre work there as a HND student, and later his work was known to Imperial where he was allowed to do further work as a degree student. Even Alexander Fleming took courses in the then Polytechnic of Central London ( Now U of Westminster) before studying medicine in London. He had choices of university and university colleges in London , but still selected the Polytechnic of Central London.

            Those who know UK HE and the UK employers – they prefer students from what they call “proper universities”- the red brick old universities like the RG and the Group94, although every post92 advertises itself as a “modern University” ” global university”, best this and that. Whatever they say, the binary divide is not bridged at all!!

            Interesting to see how many UK work permits are given to those who have vocational qualifications. In Australia, the last government increased the TAFE funding, and cut university funding, and the country wants those with vocational qualifications in large numbers whilst the universities outside the “group 8″ there trawl through Asia to bring in more “students” to keep them going, but these students do not get jobs after graduation.

  5. James Fryar Says:

    In physics, which I use as an example, students typically fit one of four general categories. There are the students who obtained good grades in their school exams, who work hard, and consistently maintain those grades through their college course. There are then the students who muddle their way through and leave with mediocre grades. There are the students who drop out after the first or second year. And then there are the outliers – the students whose grades in school weren’t spectacular yet suddenly shine by about their third year. It is the first and last group, in my experience, who go on to do PhDs.

    When we talk about the ‘intellectual ability’ of students, we are doing them a disservice. Some students in physics, to keep my example going, are gifted at mathematics and will have no problems with the theory. But put them in a lab with real equipment and you’d be checking the insurance because you couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t stick their fingers in the three-phase power socket. Some students may not be the most mathematically gifted (or rigorous) but they ‘get’ the implications and rapidly come up with interesting innovative ideas. Some students will sit in a lab, look at the equipment for five minutes, and quickly come up with ways to improve the experiment, adjust the parameters, and produce high quality data. And so on …

    The question is how do we identify innovative experimentalists, for example, on the basis of A level or Leaving cert results? How do we distinguish between the outliers and the good grade students at the beginning of their academic studies when the talents of the former group only become apparent later in their studies?

    Third-level should be about opportunity. It should be about allowing students to explore their talents. Those talents may only emerge once the student is immersed in a single field, or given new challenges they didn’t experience in the school system. There is no greater joy in teaching than having students surprise you. Society, as a whole, benefits from a system that identifies the talents and skills of our students which otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

    That, for me, is the problem with dividing 17 year old students into ‘good’ and ‘less good’. That is the problem with the arguments about ‘academic standards’ (which standard are you talking about in terms of physics? Theory, experiment, innovation?). We can only determine the ‘good’ and ‘less good’ at the end of the third-level process, not at the start. And I’m pretty sure the physics example is applicable to just about every field of study where there is no singular ‘ability’ that marks a student out as ‘good’.


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