Elitism attacked

February 26, 1999

As the debate about "dumbing down" develops, it is worthwhile adding a challenge to the received orthodoxy underlying this concern.

First, concern about differing academic standards has been around for decades. Oxbridge degrees have always led the pecking order. Newer universities were perceived as second class, but this is no longer the case. So why make an a priori assumption that the newest universities, such as my own, are unlikely ever to "catch up"?

Second, even if one accepts the questionable assumption that a degree from a newer university is of lesser worth, one should ask whose interests are in fact being served by such a debate? Perhaps the creation of this biased agenda will serve to strengthen the market share and credibility of established universities.

Let us instead debate the differences between universities in terms of their "value added". Research indicates that students attending the newest universities tend to come from postal districts with greater deprivation. It is to their credit that the newer universities' policy of wider access is enabling people not deemed to be middle-class to gain a position of higher status in society and the economy.

It is in the interests of the UK as a whole that the elitism associated with universities is not permitted to downgrade degrees from the sector that prides itself on not perpetuating a self-perpetuating middle-class elite. Clearly the concept of "standards" is susceptible to several definitions and I see no reason a priori why only one of these should be given a dominant currency and, Foucault-like, be used to produce "docile bodies" out of our newest institutions.

Chris Holligan Lecturer in education University of Paisley

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