While the levelling up agenda of the current Westminster government has seen a welcome investment in further education and an increased focus on addressing geographical inequalities, its position on higher education has moved in an entirely different direction.
Ministers have indicated widening access to higher education is no longer a priority and are increasingly focused on employment outcomes as the primary measure of educational quality. These moves will reinforce the dominance of the socially privileged in accessing higher education and will also further strengthen the position of prestigious universities. Therefore it seems that while further education is intended to address social inequalities, the model of higher education that is being pursued is fundamentally elitist.
There is something beguiling about the idea of elite university education – the idea that there are certain special people who need a different kind of higher education to nurture their unique talents, which would be wasted on, and distorted by, lesser mortals.
It is not just the government and their senior advisors who promote this way of thinking. It can be seen in the idea that you waste your talent if you choose to attend a non-elite university when you could have gone to an elite one. It is detectable in the writings of “progressives” who sadly shake their heads as they say that universities cannot be comprehensive because they need to remain elite so they are freed up to perform other urgent tasks for society.
Simply the best
The commitment to elite higher education relies on two central premises. The first is that we have an assessment system that can validly separate academic ability from social privilege. The second is that elite universities offer the best education.
The problem with the first of these commitments is that – as the OECD’s Education at a Glance dataset demonstrates – those students who have had access to the greatest educational resources before university are by far the most likely to have the opportunity to develop their brilliance as this process starts very early in childhood. And, as this article for The Conversation explains, the assessment systems we have reflect existing inequalities more than they measure educational potential.
Similarly, the idea that the most prestigious institutions offer the best education does not stand up to any sustained scrutiny, as Monica McLean, Andrea Abbas and I showed in our longitudinal analysis of the quality of sociology degrees in different universities.
The argument is not that the socially privileged students lack ability or that prestigious institutions do not offer a high quality higher education. It is simply that social privilege does not tell us anything positive or negative about students’ abilities and that institutional prestige does not tell us anything useful about educational quality.
Nor is this an issue that can be solved by better measurement. Our measurements of students’ abilities and educational quality are inevitably blunt tools rather than high precision instruments because of the nature of the complex qualitative judgements that they are based upon. These judgements are good enough to be fair and accurate most of the time but offer a general view – a snapshot in time – rather than a precise measurement of an individual or institution.
The only sane response is to design systems that accept that these judgements are potentially flawed, and to offer people chances to engage in higher education throughout their lives and, in parallel, to offer a variety of perspectives on the educational quality of degree programmes.
Accessible to all
This all matters because of the transformational nature of higher education. All forms of education have the power to be transformational. Higher education is special because its educational purpose is to offer students access to structured bodies of knowledge that change their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.
This central focus on engaging personally and directly with collective bodies of knowledge is unique to higher education and is what makes it so attractive to proponents of elite education. It is also why it is so important that it should be open to everyone.
So, rather than focusing on mass further education and elite higher education, we should focus on the development of an inclusive and transformative system of higher education, the purpose of which is to make knowledge accessible to everyone in society.
This system would look very different from what we have now. David Watson offered a view of what this might look like in his discussion of the coming of post-institutional higher education. It involves thinking about how graduates work with others in society to make use of their knowledge in new and exciting ways. Its most important outcome is not graduate salaries but the contribution that graduates make to the wider society through their careers and wider lives.
This involves moving the focus of the higher education system from distinction to inclusion in which policy is focused on the health of the higher education system as a whole rather than its number of world-leading universities.
It is about the quality of education that is offered to all students rather than the prestige of its elite education for a select few.
It highlights the importance of establishing partnerships across the tertiary sector that actively encourage students to move between different kinds of institution over their lifetimes.
And it means recognising the limits of what higher education can achieve on its own, but also being clear about the very particular value of a transforming university education.