Posted tagged ‘elitism’

Who wants to be a billionaire?

May 22, 2018

An extraordinary proportion – nearly a quarter – of the world’s billionaires are graduates of ten American universities. In addition, a large proportion of these billionaires started off rich, went to universities endowed with huge resources and social cachet, and became even richer. This is a world in which generally perceived institutional excellence is locked into social advantage, where rich graduates donate large funds to their already well-funded universities and ensure the continuation of a particular cycle of elitism, which is reinforced by a widespread belief that these ‘elite’ universities represent the best and only viable model of excellence.

If our societies are really to be more meritocratic and egalitarian, it is vital that we should move away from this kind of institutional elitism. The universities listed are all great institutions, but they do not represent the only acceptable quality mark of excellence. It is therefore increasingly important for modern systems of higher education to run with a variety of models, and to fund these to level at which they can pursue genuine innovation – and to secure a more inclusive system fit for the future.

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Professorial elitism

February 24, 2015

An interesting study undertaken recently in the United States found that over half of all tenured university lecturers in a very large sample were graduates of just ’18 elite universities’ (which in the US would be a tiny proportion of the university sector as a whole). The study concluded that access to higher education was firmly established across the country, but:

‘… Most universities are not very successful at generating professors, and most people only get doctorates because they intend to go into academia. Should these lower-prestige institutions even bother granting PhDs at all?’

There are various observations and assumptions in all of this, and they are worth analysing. First, the assumption is that people who do PhD research are generally intending to be academics. Secondly, the study observes that a small number of elite universities educate most academics. Finally, this means that the academy, as distinct from the population it teaches, is hugely elitist.  If these assumptions are correct, and moreover if they are also correct for other higher education sectors beyond the United States, they should give us some cause for concern.

I am not aware of any similar study in the UK or Ireland, but it would not be excessively difficult to undertake. I would not claim to have done anything scientific, but I have taken three universities, two in the UK and one in Ireland, and have looked at a sample of their academic staff to see what the position might be. My initial impression (and I can hardly claim more than that) is that we don’t have the same phenomenon this side of the Atlantic. All three universities would be considered to be in the middle range rather than ‘elite’; in all three a significant proportion of academics are graduates of the institution they now teach in, followed by a group who are graduates of what one might call similar institutions. Of the 100 academics I sampled across the institutions, only three were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. In fact Harvard and Stamford were better represented.

What am I concluding? First, that it might be interesting to do a more scientific study of our universities. Secondly, that if the higher education sector is to have any kind of cohesion and if it is to be successful at underpinning a reasonably egalitarian society, there should be a reasonable spread of universities whose graduates teach and research across all institutions. This is so in part because any move towards elitism will not just stay as intellectual elitism, it will quickly be social (or socio-economic) elitism also.

This is an issue to watch.