Beware the Iron Law of Elitism'

August 25, 1995

It cannot have escaped anybody's attention that students are becoming both relatively and absolutely impoverished. First grants were frozen, and then they were cut, leaving most with too little for private sector rents or food, much less such luxuries as books.

The retort of Conservative (and probably one or two "New Labour") politicians is that "Britain now has an expanded higher education sector, with greater access than ever before . . .". Access may have increased in mathematical terms, but surviving as a student is harder than ever. Student income has been eroded to the point where the term "grant" is almost irony - there are student loans, but in the harsh economics of the l990s, would anybody voluntarily place themselves in that much debt?

The United Kingdom has preferred the "elite" approach, seeing education as being for the privileged few. If "privilege" is simply greater access to wealth via accidents of birth (rich parents who can get you through the best schools, etc), there is no justification for it in a civilised nation.

Higher education in the UK is a living, breathing example of what I would term the Iron Law of Elitism (ILE). ILE states that for every egalitarian development, an elitist regression must be enacted. Thus, university places are expanded, an egalitarian gesture, but then we are told that there is not enough money for all of these students, so grants are cut. The net result is the same as before, only now more of the privileged elite find their way into universities than before.

Indeed, many students I teach are merely middle-class kids who are at university because they have nothing better to do. Presumably many excellent minds from poorer homes are forced to stay away (they are conspicuous by their absence) because of the financial costs of doing a degree.

The trend continues into the postgraduate sector. Now there are so many unemployed graduates, many want to improve their chances by taking a masters degree, but postgraduate teaching awards are virtually impossible to acquire - and harder still if, like me, you want to pursue a PhD.

This year, the Economic and Social Research Council had just 355 awards available for social sciences and 1,572 applicants. Thus, hard as it is for the children of working-class families to survive a bachelors degree, it is nigh im-possible for them even to begin a doctorate.

I am lucky enough to have wealthy parents who can support me through my degree, and am very grateful to them, but this could hardly be termed an "educational meritocracy", could it? I have applied four times in three years for postgraduate funding and each time been turned down, despite being well qualified. I could name several graduates I know who are not so lucky, and have had potentially brilliant careers cut short.

One result of this is that as university departments are not replacing retiring professors, and there are fewer people available to replace them, departments are becoming increasingly elderly. What will happen in ten years' time, when all the current academics reach retirement age, and potentially there are not enough young academics to go around?

Whichever way one considers it, the university sector is standing on the edge of a precipice, and if it should fall over the edge into pure elitism, then it will have a hard time justifying itself as the cutting edge of knowledge - it will merely be the repository of the young, rich and not necessarily bright.

Andrew Marks is about to begin his second PhD year at the University of Liverpool.

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