How expanding elite education could undermine the populists

Oxbridge and the Ivy League might do well to act more like Starbucks, argues Harvard fellow Aviezer Tucker

August 9, 2020
Aviezer Tucker

Force elite universities to be more entrepreneurial and admit millions of students – could this help stem the tide of illiberalism?

Many in higher education might say no, but for Aviezer Tucker, Gvirtzman Memorial Foundation fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies, it might be the way to combat what he calls “the stripping away of liberal institutions” which has been observed in Hungary, Poland, the US, Brazil and, in milder form, Israel and the Czech Republic.

“These are countries with very different histories and traditions, so I am asking what can explain the similarities. I focused on arrested social mobility as a result of the [2008] recession,” explained Dr Tucker of his new book, Democracy Against Liberalism. In post-communist Europe, this was largely due to the way that “the old elites and their children were still in charge because there [had been] a political but not a social revolution”. In contexts such as the US and the UK, however, a major factor in populist “resentment against elites” was the way that “universities tend to reproduce social class”.

“There will always be an arms race between elite parents and the public good,” reflected Dr Tucker. In France, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration was created by Charles de Gaulle in 1945 “explicitly to offer a meritocratic alternative” to pre-war systems of patronage. Yet current French president Emmanuel Macron, himself an alumnus, recently decided to shut it down because “elite parents are very creative and intelligent and find ways to [get their children into such institutions], though there is a big external price for society”.

After analysing how systems of higher education can help spur populist resentment, Dr Tucker decided to offer a few solutions as “balloons for people to pick up or puncture”.

His book considers the possible “legal prohibition of educational incest”, whereby “the admission of children to the schools their parents attended could be made as illegal as marrying them”. It looks at separating the education that goes on in universities from the certification process that leads to professional careers. And it stresses the value of historical education for all students. With one generation now ignorant of “fascism and the 1930s” and the next too young even to “remember the mistakes of communism”, he told Times Higher Education, he liked the idea of “some kind of circuit breaker: historical education not about the glories of the nation but about all the mistakes people made, all the mistakes you don’t want to repeat”.

Yet none of this was sufficient, Dr Tucker went on, to address the core goal of getting universities “out of the class-reproduction business” and concentrating “on scholarship and education”.

The answer, he suggested, was to “keep everything else and expand institutions. I would like to see millions of graduates of elite universities.” This could be achieved by “asking how much of an unfair advantage graduating from institution X gives to a young person” through looking at the share of top jobs that go to such graduates. The university would then be required to “accept a proportion of applicants equal to the expected proportion of alumni members of the elite”. While “new institutions could be as selective as they want”, therefore, older elite institutions would be forced to become less selective. Amid far larger numbers of graduates, it would become much less significant “if some ancient alumni help their scions to gain admission” to Oxbridge or the Ivy League.

Such a plan, in Dr Tucker’s view, would effectively mean “letting universities behave like a normal company or corporation, reacting to the demand by increasing the supply...Commercial companies would love to be in the situation of elite universities. If you told the Marriott hotel chain or Starbucks, ‘You have the market, you just have to double the number of shops or hotels that you own,’ they would run around and purchase or rent facilities and make more money. That is what managers are all about.”

Despite much – often critical – discussion of “the idea that universities are commercial enterprises”, Dr Tucker believed that managers in the sector generally “don’t behave like entrepreneurial managers, but like Soviet bureaucrats”.

“What I am offering the left is to eliminate the higher education foundations of class structure,” he said. “What I am offering to the right, which believes in the free market, is to treat higher education as a free market but to make sure it is a market for education, research and skills and not buying, packaging and reselling social class.”

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Reader's comments (3)

In England any student will find themselves being taught by people barely able to speak English. What message does the university sector send out to those paying huge sums of money for an education only to find that course after course the lecturer is barely understandable. Think about it. Over think it and the industry dies from its own morbidity. Self inflicted terminal wounds. Discuss.
Harvard again, why does Harvard seem to be determined to destroy Academia, their bloody business schools done enough damage already to the sector. Merit based selection will always take the best qualified, be they trained by private tutor or not, forcing Universities to take on those less able academically does them or the university no favours, hoovering up those that have enough ability to become useful in the skilled trades and loading them with student debt in the process whilst depriving the country of the skilled trades people it desperately needs will never be a winner in the long run.
Tucker's plan will not work because unlike coffee beans (the Starbucks analogy), the quality of students available for university admission drops as admissions increase. The revolution has to be at the primary and secondary school level where the elite send their kids to private schools or public schools in expensive areas where the poor cannot live. If private education was banned at the primary and secondary levels and public spending and governance improved (with the support of the wealthy because their kids' future would depend on it) the university sector would either look after its own interests by expanding in the way Tucker suggests or it may then be viable to force it to do so. Right now it won't work.