#HEAconf17: are graduates really pulling up the ladder?

Calls among graduates to limit student numbers are not selfish, but may instead reflect concern about the value of university education, say Duncan Watson and Robert Webb

July 5, 2017
Man confronted by ladders

For decades, it has been largely accepted that widening access to higher education should be a cornerstone of policymaking.

The strength of this belief became most obvious in 1997 when the new Labour government fully endorsed the Dearing report’s recommendations to increase capacity in higher education. “There is no greater ambition for Britain than to see a steadily rising proportion gain the benefits of a university education,” said Tony Blair, a few years later, in 2001, as he announced his wish for 50 per cent of young people to enter higher education by 2010.

The aim of increasing student numbers has, however, recently come under attack.

Take a 2013 study that suggested that graduates in particular might oppose the continued expansion of higher education. Drawing on data from the British Social Attitudes survey, the authors concluded that graduates are “in favour of pulling up the ladder behind them”.

This interpretation should be questioned, however, as it encapsulates a characteristically narrow and selfish view of human behaviour. It implies that those who have experienced a university education have invariably found it to be of such high value that extending the same privilege to many will inevitably cause that value to drop.

Unpalatable though it may sound, it may just be worth contemplating an alternative explanation – one that portrays graduates as comparatively selfless, rather than hopelessly selfish – that casts higher education in a less flattering light.

As several commentators have remarked, the point at which mass higher education may reasonably be hailed as some kind of grand economic necessity was passed long ago. Now, we have “social congestion”: too many degrees chasing too few degree-level jobs. Students want value for money, yet the overall higher education journey is becoming less and less “boutique”. Expectation and experience are drifting further apart.

To advance the “pulling up the ladder” argument – let alone accept it – when these considerations are taken into account seems fanciful. If anything, it smacks of academia’s unfortunate propensity to pat itself on the back in almost any circumstances.

By way of an alternative theory, what if graduates are not “pulling up the ladder” but are instead cautioning others not to bother setting foot on it? What if they want opportunities in higher education to be restricted only because they have learned that, for many people, the chance may not be one worth seizing?

Closer examination of the British Social Attitudes survey data indicates that this is a more realistic explanation. It is the conclusion that we reached in a paper that extended the analysis to incorporate the years 2000, 2005 and 2010 – a period that began with Aimhigher, the government-backed initiative that grew out of the Dearing report, and ended with the National Scholarship Programme and the Social Mobility Strategy, both of which retained education as a key driver.

Our research offers a more complex picture in which the move to mass higher education has introduced problems as well as benefits. The problems present themselves both internally and externally – that is, within institutions and in the market for jobs. In short, we found that attitudes towards expansion clearly intensified during the decade 2000-2010 but that they were shaped more by dissatisfaction than by self-interest. Graduates are not determined to prevent others from emulating their success: they are keen to save them from sharing their frustrations.

The assumed consensus over widening access to higher education appears increasingly fragile, if not fatally mistaken. This is unquestionably important from a policymaking perspective, as policy, after all, should reflect what is actually happening and what the people who matter really think.

What it means for institutions and academics is more difficult to say, but a useful starting point would be to extract our collective head from the sand.

We need to acknowledge that something is wrong instead of perpetuating what may be a warped view that potential calamity is an ill-deserved corollary of our own worth.

Robert Webb is associate professor at Nottingham University Business School and Duncan Watson is a reader at the University of East Anglia’s School of Economics. They are presenting at the Higher Education Academy’s annual conference, which is taking place in Manchester from 4 to 6 July.

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