The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Higher Education since the Second World War, by Peter Mandler

David Willetts welcomes a bold account of how the battle between democracy and meritocracy has transformed higher education in the UK

November 12, 2020
20 July 1966: Construction work at the new University of Essex
Source: Getty

Peter Mandler’s account of the history of post-war British education is shaped around the conflict between two principles.

On one side is what he calls “democracy”. Here, he draws on the classic analysis set out in T. H. Marshall’s 1949 essay “Citizenship and Social Class”, whereby growing rights of citizenship are expressed through the welfare state. In that spirit, he tracks the long march of previously excluded groups through the different levels of education, eventually reaching higher education. This principle also has a robustly consumerist flavour to it – young people and their parents wanted more access to education as a good thing which they wished to enjoy and woe betide those who tried to stop them.

That principle is in conflict with a rather different one: “meritocracy”. This idea, invented by the sociologist Michael Young, is under sustained attack at the moment, though of course Young himself formulated it as a critique of a simple-minded belief in IQ plus effort getting its just rewards. He showed that such a model could create a dystopian society, as it would be cruel to those left behind.

Mandler reinforces this critique of meritocracy. He takes it to mean that distinctively English preoccupation with education as a process of selecting the right people for the right studies in the right institution from an unusually early age. At every stage there is an attempt to fit the round peg in the round hole. This is in a striking contrast with the American confidence in plasticity and the capacity to grow and change. Mandler portrays the meritocrats as fighting a losing battle to select and control access to education but being driven back by the power of popular demand.

This means that he gives a vivid revisionist account of the replacement of grammar schools by comprehensives. The political mythology now is that this was an ideological drive by Tony Crosland and the new Labour government of 1964. Mandler instead portrays it as a powerful, broadly based movement that was already leading many local authorities, including Conservative ones, to create new comprehensives because the selective 11-plus examination was unpopular, given the risk of one’s own child ending up in a stigmatised secondary modern school.

The model Mandler adopts also leads him to give a good historical account of the expansion of higher education. He points out how rapid growth was in the 1970s and how slow in the 1980s. This was partly the result of changes in demand which he struggles to explain. But it was also driven by Sir Keith Joseph’s singular attempt, under the Thatcher administration, to reduce the number of students going to university. As demand for more university places intensified, that attempt was abandoned and Kenneth Baker launched a new surge of expansion.

There are salutary lessons here for any politician tempted by today’s fashionable hostility to universities to try to repeat Joseph’s policy – it did not end happily. Indeed the uproar about A levels this summer was partly driven by an attempt in the classic meritocratic tradition to fight grade inflation and stop what were thought to be under-qualified students going to university. But in the face of popular pressure we have ended up with one of the biggest ever annual increases in university participation.

So Mandler’s dualistic account proves to have considerable explanatory power. But he can’t resist the temptation to engage in a bit of interdisciplinary warfare, which is another theme running through the book. He suggests that political scientists have been too interested in high politics and public policy as the driver of educational change when the real force is popular demand – which we need historians to understand. And he really has it in for economists. He seems to think that any account of economic effects depends on the people involved making precise conscious calculations. But economics is not psychology. Mandler is unhappy that so much analysis of the benefits of higher education is about private investment returns rather than “consumption”. He has a point here: most young people actually rather enjoy being at university. But one reason for this focus on private returns is that so much policy debate has been about how to pay for higher education. That brings the issue of graduate earnings to the fore.

The book’s focus on these differences between disciplinary accounts also yields some good insights. Mandler is particularly crisp on the social mobility debate over the past decade. He brings out very clearly the tension between the social scientists led by John Goldthorpe, who focus on occupation, class and absolute social mobility determined by the growth in white-collar jobs, and the economists, headed by Jo Blanden and Steve Machin, who put the stress on movement between income quartiles. If the key driver is changes in occupational structure, it is not clear that there is much education can do independently to boost social mobility.

There is one discipline which comes out of this rather badly: politics. It is partly the inevitable result of Mandler’s type of account, which is about underlying demand. Politicians seem like corks floating on tides they cannot control – or, even worse, like the King Canute of legend hopelessly trying to resist them. But this underplays the role of public policy. Perhaps my own experience is relevant here.

Given Mandler’s framework, it is odd he is not warmer about our ending of number controls in university. I first set out the case in a pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Robbins Report, Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education, where I deliberately used the Robbins methodology pioneered by Richard Layard and Claus Moser and looked at what happens to growth in numbers if excluded groups raise their participation rates and A-level performance continues to rise.

Mandler is so focused on the democratic pressure for growth, which he seems to think makes ending of number controls inevitable, that he ignores the other, financial angle. The Treasury was less hostile to growth in numbers if it was paid for by cuts in resource per student – which is what happened with the expansion of the late 1980s. The challenge was to allow expansion without diluting resource per student. That is what was achieved with the £9,000 fees and graduate repayment. But there genuinely were alternative options in the period after 2010 in which number controls could have been retained or spending per student could have been cut. This is not some rarefied policy debate. It is how public policy complements the underlying democratic forces Mandler describes so well.

It understandably irritates academics and researchers when politicians dismiss expertise and treat it as irrelevant. But researchers can be pretty dismissive of the practice of politics, too. Mutual respect between these very different activities is so much better.

David Willetts served as minister for universities and science from 2010 to 2014 and is a visiting professor at King’s College London. His book, A University Education, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Higher Education since the Second World War
By Peter Mandler
Oxford University Press, 384pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780198840145
Published 10 September 2020

The author

Peter Mandler, professor in modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, was born into an academic family in Boston, Massachusetts, but the search for work, he recalls, meant that they “moved to California, Toronto and back to California again before I was eight. Southern California in the 1960s was a good antidote to those university-brat origins – I grew up a strange mixture of both.”

Since his mother was American and his father a Jewish refugee from central Europe, the family later “compromised on England – so I went to read history at Oxford. I have to say I was already at that stage well on the way to British history, having had plenty of exposure to England and its history from childhood, but Oxford set the seal.”

Though some historians “write the same book over and over again and it gets better and better”, Mandler reflects, he has tended to “drift from subject to subject”, in The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home (1997), History and National Life (2002) and The English National Character (2006) as well as Return from the Natives: How Margaret Mead Won the Second World War and Lost the Cold War (2013). Yet The Crisis of the Meritocracy differs from the others “not only in subject matter, but also in methodology. I wanted to get well away from political and intellectual history and try to explore the perspective of the average citizen.”

Asked about how history can illuminate today’s debates, Mandler admits that “not all past trajectories are going to continue into the future. But I think my book tells us something about those powerful social, economic and cultural forces that cause people to want more education for their children, and also about the limitations under which politicians work in seeking to steer them.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Backed by popular demand

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