Universities risk preserving powerful knowledge for social elites by teaching “truncated and limited” courses that attract students from poorer backgrounds, it has been warned.
Sue Clegg, the emeritus professor of higher education research at Leeds Beckett University, said global efforts to widen tertiary participation had often focused on the development of “generic” undergraduate courses that were driven by market demands.
Delivering the opening keynote address at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, Professor Clegg highlighted courses such as business studies that were representing an increasing number of undergraduate enrolments in England.
But the sociologist argued that these programmes differed from “traditional” professional courses such as medicine “where the knowledge is more defined and has an understood relationship to abstract disciplinary knowledge”.
“Many of these courses veer towards mundane everyday knowledge and they do not give students access to the specialist knowledge that forms the bases for generalisation and critique,” said Professor Clegg.
She highlighted evidence from around the world which suggested that these new qualifications were dominated by students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Arguing that the admission of more women and ethnic minorities to universities in the 1960s and 1970s had led to the development of powerful feminist and post-colonial critiques of society, Professor Clegg said universities “must be wary of offering a truncated and limited curriculum to newer social groups while continuing to arm social elites with the best that higher education strives to offer”.
“There are good reasons for thinking that in some contexts less privileged social groups have less access to powerful knowledge,” Professor Clegg told the event in Newport on 10 December.
“This is a major concern for radical educators who believe that participation is about social justice and that access to the goods of a university education is not just about private benefits.”
Academics should continue, she said, to “struggle for both epistemic and social access in equal measure”.
Professor Clegg also warned that the expansion in graduate numbers in many countries had not been matched by an expansion of what are considered to be graduate-level jobs.
The development of a “high-skill low-wage” workforce had only served to increase income inequality, Professor Clegg said.
She added: “Mass higher education systems are delivering more graduates which outstrip the supply of the sorts of jobs which underpinned middle class lifestyles and aspirations. The link between education, skills and income has been broken and in many countries levels of social mobility are static or falling.”
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