Access anxiety driven by 'classism', says v-c

Behind worry about standards is fear of 'have-nots', argues Newcastle head. Melanie Newman writes

October 30, 2008

Claims that widening access to university will damage academic standards come from fear among the "haves" over "the intrusion of the have-nots", according to the vice-chancellor of Newcastle University.

Chris Brink, who as vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University in South Africa increased black student entry by more than half, has identified common fears surrounding access in both countries.

In a speech to be delivered at a conference on equality in higher education on 5 November, he will argue that anxieties about falling standards, damage to reputations and "social engineering" associated with widening access may be manifestations of "the fear of the haves for the intrusion of the have-nots".

Professor Brink will compare British "classism" with racism in that it perceives the "lower classes" as lesser.

A recent BMJ editorial questioning a programme run by King's College London to help disadvantaged students to study medicine noted: "UK medical students tend to come from higher socioeconomic classes, perhaps not surprisingly, as social class correlates with intellectual ability."

In his speech, Professor Brink will argue that A-level results - or IQ scores - must not be equated with merit without consideration of context.

"It is the identification of a qualitative judgment about ability with a value judgment concerning merit ... that really sets the warning lights flashing," he said. "It is uncontroversial to say that in an admissions system relying mostly or entirely on school-leaving results children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds will not be (as) successful ... The difficulty arises when such a context-free, numbers-based admissions system is called a 'merit-based' selection and the successful and unsuccessful candidates, respectively, thereby included or excluded from a presumed meritocracy."

This would be true only if the playing field were level, which, given the existence of the concept of "lower social economic classes" is not the case, he will say.

"To say that school-leavers whose parents could buy their way into good schools are of higher merit than school-leavers who struggled in adverse circumstances, on the sole evidence of their respective school-leaving results, seems a narrow definition of the word 'merit'," the vice-chancellor will argue.

However, Professor Brink intends to argue strongly against government-enforced measures on equality. When taking "corrective action" to increase black participation in Stellenbosch, he was worried that the Government would impose equality measures.

"It was hard enough to try to convince sceptical Afrikaners that the university was mounting equality initiatives of its own accord, with the full approval and support of its academic senate ... It would have been virtually impossible to make the same argument if we had been working under overt government orders."

The vice-chancellor acknowledged that "corrective action" might also result in accusations of unfairness, recalling that every year at Stellenbosch he had to deal with "irate parents" who resented the fact that their children had been passed over in favour of those with lower grades. These discussions sometimes took surprising turns.

"One affluent parent offered the faculty of medicine a donation of R1 million (£50,000) should his child be admitted ... We were sometimes threatened with litigation, based on the accusation of unfair discrimination."

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