Monday, 6 June 2011

Inequality and higher education

Whenever there is debate about student fees, one of the issues that invariably pops up is that of inequality and fairness. "Surely charging fees will lead to greater inequality in society", or "fees will deter students from less well off families from applying", etc. These and similar arguments crop up all the time, usually with little or no regard for the actual evidence that exists - from the experience of various countries - about the truth or otherwise of these claims.

At the weekend, another idea was reported that has already given rise to criticisms about inequality and elitism. This was the idea being promoted by a group of leading academics (including AC Grayling, Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins) to establish a new private college, the New College of the Humanities (NCH), based in London and awarding University of London degrees, with plans for the first intake of 200 students to occur in Autumn 2012. NCH aims to attract highly qualified students (at least 3 A grades at A-level) and will charge very high fees of £18,000. Hence the charge of elitism.

However, the charge is surely nonsense, since such a small institution can hardly make a measurable impact on the composition and social background of the UK undergraduate student body, or on overall (social) inequality however we decide to measure it. More positively, moreover, it seems to me that we should support experiments like this - assuming that it gets off the ground in due course - as a potentially valuable contribution to the diversity of higher education provision in the UK. NCH is clearly being set up as a commercial venture, free from the government controls to which most of the rest of our higher education system is subject, and it may or may not succeed. But innovation and experimentation are always to be welcomed and I wish it well. Nor shall I lose any sleep over its possible impact on our social inequality.

That said, the recurrent debate about inequality, and the often voiced suggestions that our universities should engage in some form of social engineering to assist potential students from 'less favoured backgrounds' - if I may express it so delicately - to gain entry to degree courses, raise some tricky issues that could benefit from a little more clarity. Specifically, what do we actually mean or understand by the notion of inequality that is forever being bandied about in such an ill informed manner? And to what extent does it, or should it fall to our universities to promote whatever conception of equality or 'fairness' we opt for?

Now, inequality can be thought of in two principal ways. The first is inequality of outcomes, by which we mean, thinking of education here, that everyone should end up essentially the same in terms of the qualifications they achieve. That would mean allocating massive resources to those less able (including to those socially disadvantaged) in order to bring them up to the level of those more fortunately endowed (with inherent brainpower, and/or with the social attributes and supports that facilitate effective learning). And taken to its logical conclusion, such an approach to the allocation of educational resources is manifestly absurd - it is highly inefficient for one thing, ignores the likely preferences of many of those being educated, and probably ends up seriously under-investing in the very young people who could benefit most from the best and most demanding forms of higher education. So let us not pretend any longer that we want everyone to turn out essentially the same, as that's neither possible nor desirable!

Instead, the second approach has a bit more going for it, I think. This involves thinking of inequality much more in terms of inputs and opportunities. On this view, we would like everyone capable of benefiting from higher education to have that chance, or opportunity, whether the benefits take the form of higher future wages, or simply a wider knowledge and understanding of the fascinating and diverse world we live in (or even, more controversially, the sheer enjoyment of being a student for three or four years). We might not be too keen to undertake a great deal of 'spoon feeding' of the students, e.g. by providing additional help for those less able, but if we care about inequality and see higher education as a tool that can help reduce it, we might still go a little way down the road of offering such help.

I can certainly see the sense in that line of thinking, but I wouldn't personally want to travel a long way down the road just referred to. This is not because I am against helping and supporting students, far from it. Rather, it's because I see the problems faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds originating much earlier in their lives, and I suspect that social intervention of some sort is needed long before anyone gets to the stage of thinking about going to university. It seems to me that what young people need from an early age is self confidence, independence, and ambitious goals for themselves (grounded in reality rather than fantasy). More mundanely, but just as important, is a range of communication and social skills (basic socialisation, really), the habit of reading (little is more depressing than hearing a student complain, as one does sometimes, "Oh, no, I don't have to read the whole book, do I?"), and good work habits. These are very typical middle class values, generally absorbed very early in life.

How to instil such critical values into children with materially and emotionally poorer backgrounds is a nightmare for well-meaning social policy, involving lots of issues and approaches that are still not as well understood as they should be. Hence there is still massive uncertainty over how best to address these issues. This is simply a fact of life, albeit an uncomfortable one. But I don't think it's right or fair then to turn on the universities and criticise them for being elitist or for promoting inequality in society, and nor is it right to attack innovative ideas like the proposed NCH on similar grounds. It is the duty of the universities to provide high level education to all who can benefit from it, not to solve all the social problems that no one else seems able to deal with!

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