Why I ... believe expansion on the cheap could harm universities' social role

December 13, 2002

In less than 20 years British social attitudes have become significantly more tolerant. In the same period there has also been an unprecedented expansion of higher education. The two are not unrelated. Although the growth of higher education accounts for only a part of the changes, people with degrees have distinctively more tolerant attitudes not only towards groups that are currently targets for social inclusion, such as homosexuals and ethnic minorities, but also towards the rights of those who are definitely not, such as white racial supremacists.

In a nutshell, those with a higher education understand and apply the principles of liberal democracy more consistently and to a greater degree than do others in our society. Given the desirability of such political tolerance, this would appear to provide a significant justification for the social role of universities and for their adequate funding.

In the US, fostering such humanitarian and civic values and the integration of an ethnically diverse population have long been regarded as an important benefit of higher education. But this assumes that universities change attitudes. Some would argue that people who enter higher education differ from those who do not, and it is these pre-existing differences that account for graduates' enhanced tolerance.

This may be partly true but extensive research on graduates' and non-graduates' notions of tolerance shows substantial differences, even when factors such as class, religion and even cognitive sophistication are taken into account. Moreover, studies that follow attitude change as students go through college indicate that selection itself cannot account for such differences. So, universities make a difference. But why?

US studies of tolerance-related values on entering college and several years after completion find that "experience of social leadership", contact with faculty and academic performance matter, even after taking into account students' abilities, social characteristics and values. Experience of different groups and cultures is likewise associated with increased acceptance of social diversity.

Research from Holland and Canada also indicates that the content of university education matters. Therefore, disciplines most likely to change students' values in the direction of tolerance are those that address issues of social diversity directly (that is, the social sciences) and those in which students are trained to interact and empathise with others. Moreover, the suggestion is that these effects last: a US study that has followed people over 50 years points to the enduring nature of values engendered during student life.

What these studies also find, however, is that "big is bad". To act as effective socialising agents, academic institutions need to provide students with a "psychologically manageable interpersonal environment". We might therefore expect that the concomitants of academic expansion - the growth in size of institutions, changes in staff-to-student ratios, of the pure numbers of people being processed - reduce the chance to develop informal academic contacts and engage in beneficial forms of social participation.

This effectively vitiates the influence of higher education on the development of tolerant values. It need not do so, of course: the quality of an academic environment can be maintained even in the face of expansion.

But this sort of environment costs money. Hence, the decisions in process with respect to the funding of higher education are of relevance to more than simply academic goals or to the ostensible role of the expansion of higher education in enhancing Britain's economic performance. They also have a bearing on what sort of political values are likely to be inculcated in the halls of academe. Expansion on the cheap is no more likely to enhance tolerance than it is to turn Britain into an economic powerhouse.

Geoffrey Evans
Official fellow in politics
Nuffield College, Oxford

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