Universities and social aspirations

Why do young people go to one university rather than another? And when they go there, how does it change them? If two people with the same attainment and the same interests proceed to higher education, and one of them goes to, say, Oxford, and the other to London Metropolitan University, will they exit from the system still the same? And if not, what determines the difference?

These questions are important because the outcomes of higher education are not just educational, they are clearly also social. People network at university, and the groups they associate with will often determine the further course of their lives and careers. Therefore it matters not just whether they meet people with the same intellectual and professional interests and intentions, but also what kind of socio-economic associations they form or are confirmed in.

Recently a student newspaper in Duke University, the prominent private research-intensive university based in Durham, North Carolina, ran a piece describing the impact that the university has had on one of its students. It quotes the student as saying that ‘he can no longer relate to any of his friends from high school’, all of whom, we learn, have unlike him gone to local state institutions. He still tries to socialise with them when he returns home, but conversation has become difficult because their experience is different from his. ‘I think it’s just really hard for me’, he muses, ‘ to relate to people who, you know, couldn’t get into a [university] like mine’.

OK, so what is that difference, then? Is it the more intellectual discourse available at the resource-rich Duke University? Is it based on the quality of the faculty and the richness of the pedagogy? Apparently not. Rather, in Duke his conversations with his classy college friends tend to revolve around ‘discussions of greek rankings, sharing of sexual conquests and wordless exchanges of loud bodily functions.’

What we are therefore left with is what we probably already knew: that there is a higher education apartheid based around social standing, which merges with claimed intellectual superiority backed by more generous funding. And these are the continuing building blocks of professional and social elites, and ultimately social exclusion.

Almost everybody these days supports and welcomes higher education diversity, but often there is a subtext about social hierarchies. We will never be in a system in which all institutions are equal, nor should we want to be. But we should look again at how diversity is often just a facilitator for social ambition, in which some institutions are prized and others are avoided by those wanting to get to the top of the tree. It is time for the system to say goodbye to all that, and goodbye to the assumption that institutional age delivers a more excellent intellectual performance, and goodbye to the belief that it is OK to pursue social ambition through one’s choice of higher education institution. It is time to say a genuine hello to real diversity, of different approaches but equal ambition and equal opportunities for world class leadership.

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3 Comments on “Universities and social aspirations”

  1. V.H Says:

    There is something else I believe you should add, confidence. In some universities you have a large proportion drawn from the fee paying second level system. These enter knowing what’s expected. There is a continuum. They are not being checked and curbed by essay and exam style sheets, and so can more readily absorb what the university is offering. You’d have to wonder if there is an advantage in a sort of immersion. Where the kid from a state school is one of 50 and cannot form a self supporting clique of fellow state school leavers. Of course knowing this the college could easily put in place language courses for in truth the state school kid is entering a foreign land.
    I am actually surprised the Irish system hasn’t been studied (leastwise there hasn’t been much noise) to see the effects on the system. There the system was opened to virtually all that took the leaving cert after about ’97. Such, where before if you had a Year of 100, the streaming would have put 30 in each stream and one only class would be tracked to college, if that number. In effect you had a series of Dukes that became Nebraska State.
    What I found as a mature student was a system delighted to have me and the rest of us. But one that expected us to have a knowledge that we simply couldn’t possess.


  2. The does seem to be a lot of categorising going on in this piece; the individuals seem to be considered as homogenous units.
    To begin with two people with similar attainments going to two different centres…? They are each a nexus of cultural, academic, social and to some extent political expectations and backgrounds. Similarities pale against the developing psyches of the students over the period of study.

    How does one research these things when the models and methodologies do not take the whole and emerging complex as their bases?

    One ends up with at worst platitudes, or generalisations that do no more than skim over the surface.

  3. Nathan Says:

    It would be great to do some ethnography research at social settings at two different universities, such as oxford and then lets say, york saint johns, sheffield university, and de montford, to see how the different levels of education shape the way in which social groups interact with each other.


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