Academics should set aside the “hubris” that higher education can build a fairer society and focus instead on forging a more intelligent one, a leading scholar in the field has said.
Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, said the idea that widening participation could foster a meritocracy had been hugely influential since the publication of the Robbins report and the California Master Plan for Higher Education in the 1960s.
But universities had “failed” on this count, said Professor Marginson, who was delivering the keynote address at a colloquium to mark the 50th anniversary of the Society for Research into Higher Education.
Although participation in higher education around the world was at a record high, equality of opportunity seemed “further off than ever”, Professor Marginson said.
Placing responsibility for social mobility solely in the hands of universities underestimated the enduring effects of family background, cultural capital and social networks on graduates’ prospects, he said.
Such optimism about the power of higher education might have been fitting in the aftermath of the Second World War, but Professor Marginson argued that it was out of step with the rapid expansion of executive pay in recent decades.
When today’s “super-managers’ salaries” become tomorrow’s inheritances, society will “close up further at the top”, Professor Marginson predicted, with family wealth becoming more important and higher education offering fewer opportunities to those lower down.
He highlighted research that found that significant numbers of children of high-income US families already did not go to leading colleges, or did not go to university at all.
This situation is likely to get worse, Professor Marginson warned, with inequality estimated to be increasing in two-thirds of the world’s countries.
“We should set aside the hubris that higher education…is the principal maker of social relations,” he said.
“In aggregate, what happens to income and wealth, labour markets, taxation, government spending, social programmes and urban development is much more important.”
This does not mean that the expansion of higher education over the past five decades had not had significant achievements, Professor Marginson said, highlighting advances in gender equality and social and scientific literacy.
But he said that the focus on employability as a measure of higher education’s success conferred “undue determining power” on the sector.
And he argued that there should be a renewed effort to build stronger mass higher education institutions, as opposed to research-intensive institutions, since it was the former that “carried the main responsibility for social learning”.
“If, for the foreseeable future, we are doomed to educate a society lorded over by a new aristocracy of money in a political economy becoming ever more unequal by the day, then let it be a more intelligent, more informed and more confident society in which agency is more broadly distributed than now,” Professor Marginson said.
“This kind of society is the least likely to tolerate the loss of the common weal and the most likely to renew the forward-looking democratic spirit that was the best of 1965.”