Separate and unequal

February 14, 2013

Malcolm Gillies could not be more mistaken (“Independence pays”, Opinion, 31 January): we need only look at the US Ivy League and our own “public” schools to see the damage that such elitism does. In both cases the institutions concerned charge far more than comparable state providers, with fees increasing far more rapidly than general prices or household incomes. Much of the additional revenue goes on things - glitzy cafeterias in the US, beagle kennels over here - that have only a remote relationship to learning but denote privilege and prestige. Most importantly, the fees provide a “price umbrella” for other providers, thus increasing the general level well beyond what many families - or the state - can afford. The higher charges reflect both the positional market in which these institutions operate and their lack of accountability to the state, neither of which is conducive to price restraint. The irony is that in each case the private institutions receive huge state subsidies (federal student support and research funding in the US, tax breaks in both nations).

There is also a range of non-quantifiable detriments. There and here, elite institutions act as a barrier to social mobility. Large numbers of private institutions create negative peer effects for the majority of students. It becomes difficult or impossible for state institutions to have socially balanced intakes, itself leading to greater social segregation. There is a clear risk of “crowding out” as elite providers claim a disproportionate share of the most talented students, teachers and researchers. In the US and the UK, the elite sit at the top of an educational hierarchy that underpins and reinforces the social hierarchy, with unhelpful educational and economic consequences.

The coalition government’s educational reforms - AAB and “core and margin” in higher education, academies and free schools at the secondary and primary level - are already leading to greater stratification. A separate elite stratum is the last thing we need if we are to have a healthy, socially responsive and economically efficient educational system.

Roger Brown, Professor of higher education policy, Liverpool Hope University

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