University still a bastion of social elite, says Hefce official

At a British Academy debate, David Sweeney urges the sector to focus on producing graduates who will engage with society

July 3, 2014

Source: Corbis

All aboard: universities should do more to foster diversity, says David Sweeney

UK universities have “comprehensively failed” to move away from their association with the “social elite” and must do far more to “role-model the graduates of the future to be engaged citizens”.

That was the argument of David Sweeney, director for research, innovations and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, speaking on a panel at the British Academy last week.

Broadening the Debate: How the Humanities and Social Sciences Can Help Us Address Global Challenges formed part of a series of events to mark the visit of a delegation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Short films set out the arguments of recent reports from the two organisations that looked at how the humanities and social sciences play a significant role in improving society.

However, Mr Sweeney took issue with the title of the British Academy’s report, Prospering Wisely: How the Humanities and Social Sciences Enrich our Lives, which was published earlier this year.

Although the academy was meant to be “the expert on language”, he said, such a title was “bound to alienate” many people at a time of austerity and cuts.

Despite the many achievements of British universities, he went on, the UK had “comprehensively failed to get away from the social elite in higher education”.

“Do we want people like us leaving universities?” he asked. “Do we want our graduates to be engaged with society or part of an elite? Would it not be good to act as models for people who will tackle the big global challenges?”

Another panellist, Baroness Blackstone, also raised concerns about whether universities were delivering the kinds of graduates who were needed.

The chair of the British Library (and former Labour minister) pointed to the “completely unnecessary and unacceptable specialisation in the last two years of school”. By continuing to look at only three A-level results, universities could take much of the blame.

“If they asked for more subjects,” she explained, “schools would adjust just like that, without any need for an act of Parliament or a change to the exam board system.”

Meanwhile, Stefan Collini, professor of intellectual history and English literature at the University of Cambridge, warned that it was important “not to claim a monopoly of virtue for one set of disciplines”.

He also noted that much work in the humanities is not concerned with “global challenges”, and that it would be wrong to focus all our energies and funding on such goals.

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