Madness of a class-ridden system

August 30, 1996

Rising fees and a widening social divide mean that the path from graduate to academic career needs ever more money and luck, argues Geoffrey Strickland. Evidence that the expansion of higher education has increased equality of opportunity and taken us further towards John Major's goal of a classless society is not abundant. In some ways it sometimes looks as if it has deepened class divisions.

When Michael Young, in the 1950s, wrote of the rise of the "meritocracy", he reminded us that this would be a new kind of egalite. When Milton Friedman introduced another related concept, that of "credentialism" or the valuing of credentials for their own sake, he warned of the undervaluing of those talents and skills which had not been subjected to formal examination. In some professions (librarianship is one of many examples in the public sector) promotion is now irrevocably closed to all who lack a first university degree and social mobility confined to the proper channels.

Observers of social trends, among them enthusiasts for expansion, note with misgiving that those from underprivileged backgrounds are scarcely better represented in the universities today than in the 1950s; even if a higher proportion go to university now, as they did then, than those from comparable social groups in France.

Unbridgeable social divisions, moreover, are becoming apparent within the academic profession itself. Today the graduate who wishes to earn higher qualifications and embark on an academic career will need far more luck or, failing that, money than those who entered the profession during the 40 years after the war.

They will need luck in their choice of examination subject, in their state of health and mind during the examination and in their examiners. They will need examiners, for example, who follow the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' advice and are prepared to mark to the full range. A first-class degree is not enough to ensure on its own a grant from the British Academy. Without a grant, they will need to find Pounds 2,490 or for Pounds 1,245 part-time fees.

It would be instructive to consult the CVs of a representative sample in all disciplines of academics who have achieved recognised distinction over the past four decades and to see how many failed to earn even firsts. Not all were Einsteins, but nor were they all notably better examinees. Today, unless they had private means, many of these would have been excluded from their profession at the outset. To illustrate the point, I shall tell, without naming her but with her permission, the story of Dr X.

Dr X began her research with me on a topic in which she took a particularly strong personal interest and on which she is continuing to work with publication in mind. The documents she consulted were mainly in archives in France, by whose administrators she was treated as a welcome guest and to whose own bulletins she has herself contributed. As Mrs X, she registered as a part-time postgraduate student. She and her husband both work but found themselves with three children to support in full-time higher education. In 1991, full-time fees were Pounds 1,160. Working "part-time" made no difference to the time she or I, as her supervisor, were prepared to spend. Supervisors have never been paid for supervising theses or have they expected to be.

My department gained a negligible financial advantage from her enrolment. "Part-time" research degrees had been taken before by students without a grant; in one case by a student who was employed in domestic service and who produced in three years as a registered student an original and well-argued and documented piece of work; its subject was Proust and the influence of English authors.

The only condition of paying the part-time rate was that the thesis could not be submitted without special permission within the first three years of research. However, such permission had been granted in 1989 in the case of our gifted and dynamic "Proustienne".

During the first year of Mrs X's research, part-time fees were raised from Pounds 580 to Pounds 850 and the following year to Pounds 1,245. She and others throughout the United Kingdom, in which postgraduate fees are now standardised, had been gazumped. All the more reason, we assumed, for her to be granted the same dispensation that had been agreed in the case of our previous part-time researcher. I accordingly asked the permission of the appropriate university official for her to submit at the end of her third year, mentioned the precedent and expressed my view as her supervisor that the thesis was by now ready for examination.

I received a letter back insisting that the thesis should be submitted during the fourth year. I continued to appeal on her behalf and meanwhile advised Mrs X to place her thesis, properly bound, in the registrar's office before September 30, the last day of the third year. At midnight on the 30th, by a Cinderella-like transformation in reverse, it became a "submitted" thesis. We proceeded to the viva. The PhD was recommended. Mrs X, however, was told that unless she paid the fees for the fourth year, a further Pounds 1,245, she wouldhave to go on being Mrs X. No cheque, no doctorate.

The correspondence in which I became engaged on her behalf - unsuccessfully - took on an unreal quality. I found myself in dispute with intelligent, responsible colleagues, senior academics, perfectly capable of seeing a straightforward argument but seemingly afraid to admit they had. The university authorities argued, without mentioning the precedent of 1989, that an exception to the part-time rules could not be made. My contention that we should be encouraging good researchers and early submission, not penalising them, met with no response. On one point, however, the authorities were forthcoming. Mrs X had made considerable use of the university library, a point also endorsed by the head librarian. I pointed out that even if she had, to charge her fees of an extra Pounds 1,000 was daylight robbery, but that, as it happened, she had used the library very little and worked mainly (and without paying a centime) in France; following which a dignified silence brought the exchange to an end.

An appeal to the faculty's research committee (most of whose members were younger colleagues I knew well) produced no more rational response. I learned that I could only appeal to it through the intermediary of my head of department, who declined to pass on my own memorandum, which he considered ill judged, but later admitted, nonetheless, that his representations had been no more successful than my own.

One of the conclusions I wish to draw from this episode is that British universities are now exhibiting symptoms of what is familiar to any student of history: the collective irresponsibility verging on insanity of the individually sane. An increasing proportion of the national budget has been devoted since 1988 to turning UK universities into replicas of those in the United States. There is little left to pay for the principal raison d'etre of the US system, the graduate school, in which the best teaching and research are to be found. We are adopting the worst and not the best of the US. The British universities are in theory autonomous, yet increasingly subject to the CVCP and their paymasters the funding councils.

The inability of some deans and some vice chancellors in their official capacity to behave like rational individuals sometimes reminds me of a pattern of behaviour familiar to students of Eastern Europe. It would be simplistic to suggest any general remedy here; though one particular reform might, nonetheless, recommend itself. To charge research students in the humanities for supervision which often costs universities literally nothing and is the same price as that paid by students in the experimental sciences is in itself crazy, is it not, ladies and gentlemen of the Higher Education Funding Council, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the British Academy?

It is also time, even at the expense of some wounded feelings, which I regret, for those whose business is the pursuit of truth to call things by their name.

Geoffrey Strickland, reader in French studies, University of Reading.

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