Graduates are twice as likely as non-graduates to say that fewer people should go to university, according to a study that claims that those who benefit from higher education are more inclined to want to “pull up the ladder” behind them.
Analysis of the British Social Attitudes survey, which polls about 3,000 people every year, found that middle-class people were also twice as likely to say student numbers should be reduced as those from working-class backgrounds.
According to the paper, Framing Higher Education: Questions and Responses in the British Social Attitudes Survey, 1983-2010, by academics from King’s College London, the Institute of Education, University of London and the University of Manchester, only 10 per cent of working-class respondents in 2010 thought participation should be reduced, compared with 26 per cent in professional and managerial classes.
Those who attended a private school – who are more likely to attend university – were also more in favour of reducing higher education participation, says the study, due to be presented at the British Education Research Association’s annual conference in London, which runs from 23 to 25 September.
“People from lower socio-economic classes still see education as a way out of poverty, so they tend to believe in higher education and support grants or bursaries for students,” said Steven Jones, researcher at the Manchester Institute of Education at the University of Manchester, who co-authored the paper.
“Those who already have a degree are more likely to want fewer students – maybe because they perceive there are fewer graduate jobs out there than before, or that their own higher education experience wasn’t worthwhile,” he added. “But it is more likely that they want to pull up the ladder behind them to make sure other people do not get the same opportunities and credentials that they did.”
Overall, the BSA survey found general support for student number expansion, but Dr Jones argued that that was not reflected by media coverage, which often focused on “Mickey Mouse degrees” or “dumbing down”.
Some 43 per cent of those polled in 2010 thought that more than 50 per cent of young people should go to university, whereas just 13 per cent believed that less than 30 per cent should enter higher education, the paper says.
The study also notes that support for higher education has remained buoyant over the years, despite the researchers finding that questions in the BSA survey were now being phrased in a more negative way towards universities.
For example, surveys in the 1980s and 1990s would ask “how important” was it for working-class people to attend university, whereas surveys in 2005 and 2010 would ask respondents to agree or disagree with the statement “university education just isn’t worth the amount of time and money it usually takes”.
“No matter what question they asked or how they framed it, people still believed higher education was worthwhile,” Dr Jones added.