THE Scholarly Web

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August 11, 2011

The UK government's decision to open up a proportion of student places to full competition in 2012-13, allowing universities in England to recruit unlimited numbers of students with grades of AAB or higher at A level, has provoked fierce debate.

Much discussion has focused on the fact that the policy is likely to benefit the elite institutions, dubbed an "English Ivy League" by the press. The issue was thrown into particularly sharp relief by a Times Higher Education analysis that showed that the institutions with the largest proportion of AAB students were also the worst performers in terms of widening participation.

The argument that it is not possible to be elite without being elitist was taken up by Doug Belshaw, a researcher and analyst for Jisc infoNET (, who used his blog to look closely at the definitions of elite, elitist and elitism.

His post was sparked by a discussion with Ian Yorston, director of digital strategy at Radley College. "He argued that you don't get elite performers without being elitist," Mr Belshaw writes. "He (and others, to be fair) used the example of elite performers in sport: they need to be treated well and compete against the best to be 'elite'. He called this approach 'elitism'. I argued, contrary to this, that the terms elite and elitist refer to very different concepts."

Their full exchange is on Storify (

Citing definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary, Mr Belshaw argues that there is nothing wrong with being 'elite' but that being 'elitist' is shameful. "I've got no problem with supporting and developing talent," he writes. "My beef is with the important difference between elite (which is a status) and elitism (which is an attitude).

"It's a scandal of epic proportions that privately educated politicians harp on about the importance of narrowly focused league tables for state schools whilst private schools are left (by and large) to carry on activities that perpetuate hegemonic power."

On the topic of hegemonic power, an academic in the US has addressed the role of scholars in public debate about major social issues, including foreign policy.

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University, explores the issue on his blog, arguing that it is crucial that scholars get involved. Academics "have a unique role to play in public discourse - primarily as an independent source of information and critical commentary - as well as an obligation to use their knowledge for the betterment of society", Professor Walt writes. Involvement in public life has risks, he says, "most notably the danger of being co-opted or corrupted by powerful institutions who may be eager to enlist academics to help them justify policies that will benefit those same institutions".

Nevertheless, academics have more to lose by not getting stuck in, he argues. "If scholars working on global affairs are content with having little to say to their fellow citizens and public officials and little to contribute to solving public problems, then we can expect even less attention and fewer resources over time (and to be frank, we won't deserve either)."

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