We must work harder to improve access to elite universities

Inequality remains a pernicious problem at our elite universities. Failure to tackle it will have negative consequences for individuals and society at large

December 7, 2017
Oxford college porter
Source: Alamy

Nothing warms the heart like a story of a brilliant but poor child lifted out of the gutter by education. Not even a gif of a kitten doing something silly can compete.

For many this is the very point of education – to ensure that talent and hard work determine a young person’s future, rather than the circumstances into which they were born.

It’s a belief that’s particularly strong in the US, and when I interviewed Nicholas Dirks, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, recently, he was at pains to highlight the continuing focus it gets from the hard-pressed public universities.

The New York Times called Berkeley a “social mobility machine”, and it’s easy to see why: the institution has almost as many undergraduates receiving needs-based support from the federal government as all eight private Ivy League institutions put together.

But look at other top-tier institutions and this is more of an exception than a rule. In the UK, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were recently taken to task by David Lammy, a former higher education minister and one of the UK’s most senior black politicians.

Nearly one in three Oxford colleges, he pointed out, admitted no black British A-level students in 2015. What’s more, he said, “It’s [always] the child’s fault, it’s the school’s fault, it is the education system’s fault. It is never ever, ever the college’s fault.”

The depth of the problem is illustrated further by what happens to students at these world-leading institutions once they graduate.

According to a recent study, Oxford graduates who also went to a top fee-paying school are twice as likely to go on to elite professional positions as their state-school-educated peers.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been efforts, or successes, in the battle to improve access. As discussed in our cover story, the growth of participation in higher education, which is a trend across almost all continents and all economic and political models, has opened up access to huge swathes of the population who were previously excluded.

There are arguments as to how much further expansion should continue, but this massification of higher education is a genie that cannot be stuffed back in the bottle – nor should it be in a world that desperately needs greater understanding, and a global economy that needs new and different skills.

So participation has indeed been widened. It is access at the elite end of the system where progress has been too slow – where privilege continues to be entrenched to a degree that is as hard to justify as it apparently is to change.

Louise Richardson, Oxford vice-chancellor, recently highlighted what is at stake if educational inequality continues to fester. She pointed out that “the single biggest predictor of a vote for Brexit and a vote for Donald Trump was not income, was not age, was not race – it was educational attainment”.

This “educational divide”, she continued, “could have portentous ramifications. It has the potential to undermine the bonds that hold representative democracy together.”

It was a stark warning from an academic leader with the platform and respect to resonate globally. Similar points were made by Alan Milburn when he quit as the UK’s social mobility tsar this week. The failure to improve social mobility “means more anger, more resentment, and creates a breeding ground for populism”, he said. While higher education can never be the whole solution, it must be part of it. But the answer is not just to continue increasing participation. At a time when “university” is being used as a synonym of “elite”, it is essential that more young people from poor backgrounds with the talent to thrive at the highest ranking universities – which, given the focus of the media, are often the public face of higher education – are handed the chance to do so.

Failing to act won’t just hurt those left out and left behind, it will hurt the privileged, too. Indeed, as Richardson’s and Milburn’s observations make clear, it already has.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: The curse of privilege

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