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.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

International Student Support Assistant YORK ST JOHN UNIVERSITY
Senior Lecturer: Architecture (Cultural Content) NORWICH UNIVERSITY OF THE ARTS
Head of Department of Physics ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY
Research Assistant LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest