Middle-class ‘arms race’ thwarts access efforts, summit hears

Universities face new diversity challenge as middle-class parents push to secure places for children at top institutions, says former University of Warwick boss

September 5, 2017
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An education arms race led by middle-class parents desperate to ensure that their children enter top universities is making it harder for institutions to admit more students from poorer backgrounds, a former vice-chancellor has warned.

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit , Sir Nigel Thrift, executive director of the Schwarzman Scholars leadership programme run by Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said that leading universities were facing a new “structural issue” of “middle-class activism” among pushy parents, who are investing far more in their children’s education than ever before.

Sir Nigel, who led the University of Warwick from 2005 to 2016, told the event that middle-class families in the US, where he is now based in New York, today spend four times as much on their offspring’s education as they did in 1986.

“What was [once] a leisurely group of middle-class people are now suddenly finding themselves having to invest in their kids’ education in a pretty serious way,” said Sir Nigel, a leading human geographer. Many parents had sacrificed their “conspicuous consumption” on luxury goods to pay for school fees and private tutoring to help their children get ahead, he explained.

The emergence of this “middle-class activism in a very strong way” had led to a highly qualified cadre of middle-class students able to scoop up the majority of places in selective universities, Sir Nigel said.

This created a “headwind” for top universities, which had to find room for students from socially disadvantaged groups while also seeking to “produce elites”, he continued.

Universities faced a “balancing act…between being elite and inclusive”, but “these two things did not always add up”, he said.

Speaking to THE after the event, Sir Nigel said that he “did not blame” middle-class parents for investing so heavily in their children’s education because it is normal that “people defend their turf”.

“The problem is that it makes it difficult to include other people and make room for anyone else,” he told THE. “The best thing is to expand the pie,” he added, saying that increasing the number of student places at the UK’s Russell Group universities was likely to “cause a rustle, but not a massive stir”.

Lord Willetts, the former UK universities minister who chaired the panel, added that he too felt that there was an “arms race in educational attainment” that could make university access more challenging.

However, Carol Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that it remained a “moral imperative [for universities]…to seek out talent and find a way for it to thrive” within higher education.

“Talent does not have anything to do with wealth,” said Professor Folt, who was particularly pleased, she added, that one of UNC’s new undergraduates was a mother of nine and had gained a place after completing classes at a community college.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, England’s main higher education regulator from January, added that he saw “diversity and equality going together” in higher education.

“We have to believe that is our moral starting point,” Sir Michael said.


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