Elite, against the odds (1 of 3)

November 11, 2010

The Browne Report looks likely to leave arts and humanities students with twice the level of fees and some academic departments facing closure ("The shape of things to come", 28 October).

Given that "elite" institutions remain largely populated by those from higher socio-economic brackets, they will be less at risk. It can be tempting to equate "elite" primarily with ability and believe that "elite" universities have a stronger claim to survival. In my experience, such views are at best selectively true and at worst complicit in an ugliness that sees culture as a secondary societal concern.

I have moved from the University of Oxford to Birmingham City University and there has been no step down in terms of quality, professionalism or ability - both in teaching and research.

Indeed, being less bound by the quantity-first ethos created in some areas by the research assessment exercise, Birmingham City is more able to sustain a community driven by a heartening commitment to unfaddish scholarly values.

As for the students of both institutions, the overriding difference between them is economic status and opportunity. While a large percentage of my Oxford students had superb private educations, my current ones have mainly been subject to the thin end of the state process.

It is true that my students at Oxford were on the whole more driven, diversely cultivated and almost universally bound for success. It is also true that some of my current students do not always appear highly driven or motivated; but then they are in many cases working almost full-time in order to finance their studies, a fact that tells its own story about commitment.

Undoubtedly, some are not passionately invested in the subject, but this could also be said about some of my Oxford students, who had no real interest in the course beyond it providing the context within which to write the next chapter of their lives. Many end as they begin, as very capable 2:1s. My current students, on the other hand, can undergo radical transformations, blossoming into independent thinkers and cultured adults.

The percentage of talented and committed "elite" students, if it must be all about the numbers, is in all honesty about the same.

Tony Howe, School of English, Birmingham City University.

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