It’s time to dismantle higher education’s stereotypes

Katie Stripe identifies some of higher education's most common unfair and untrue beliefs - and calls for effort to dismantle them

Katie Stripe is Senior Learning Designer at Imperial College London 

One of Stripe and Ntonia’s 22 recommendations for inclusive teaching is to challenge stereotypes and stop them from being propagated.

And it’s just as important in policy making too.

This is a challenging topic to quantify – stereotypes are rarely overt, and few people would be silly enough to write them down. Crucially, they’re often subconscious.

But there are some generalisations that can be seen in data which indicate imbalance, and other ideas or thoughts that should be questioned.

And, like any sector, higher education is full of them. They manifest in meetings, come up in conversation, and lurk under the surface in proposals and papers.

If we look at the protected characteristics and markers that are often used for widening participation or access schemes, there are all sorts of stereotypes – many of which are as daft as they are damaging – and which should be challenged.

Russell Group universities are better than post-92 institutions

This is defined by league tables which create a combined score to rank institutions. But these tables are based on broad value judgments. For example, The Complete University Guide uses the following as metrics to define how “‘good” an institution is – Entry Standard, Money spent (on facilities and services), and staff student ratio.

These are not metrics for quality, they are metrics for available funds. Increasingly, these metrics do not match to high scores in student satisfaction and graduate outcomes yet they still favour large institutions with long standing brands. If you use The Times University Rankings social inclusion index as a metric for quality then you see Russell Group institutions nearer the bottom. National, and international rankings only provide half a story.

Science is harder and/or more valuable than humanities subjects.

Within the university sector and within institutions themselves there are also disciplinary hierarchies – which even among themselves are conflicted. STEM is often discussed in research as a collective entity (Wong et al., 2023), but within that distinctions are made – maths, physics and chemistry are “hard sciences” which are methodologically more rigorous than other science, or applied topics such as medicine and engineering.

This also affects students who can feel that “biology is never really held in as high regard as the other” (Wong et al., 2023). Social science is seen as “soft” and not as valuable to society. See also current government rhetoric about the arts.

Research is more important than teaching

While this view may be more prevalent in research intensive universities, and very much driven by institutional culture, there are also more subliminal connotations. According to Textio, a tool for making job adverts more inclusive “teaching” as a term resonates more with women and should be replaced by guiding or instructing. This does not bode well for the changing of how institutional roles are viewed.

Professors are all old white men

This is historical and comes from a time when academia was a pathway that was only really open to certain demographics. While not totally true, there are still proportionally more white male professors than any other demographic, particularly in the sciences. To challenge this we need to be careful when selecting images of someone in a teaching or lecturing situation, particularly when presenting educational content.

Girls don’t study physics (or other hard sciences)

The data shows that this is still worryingly accurate HESA data shows engineering, technology, and computing are still strongly skewed towards male students. This is less of a stereotype than a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are fewer women in senior academic roles so women don’t apply.

You have to come from a rich background and have been to grammar (or private) school to go to university

As with women in some subjects this is another self-fulfilling prophecy. This affects students from low-income/working class backgrounds, those who are the first in their family to enter higher education, often those who are care experienced as they do not have the role models or social capital that is associated with other demographic groups.

Disabled students find higher education difficult

Much like students that come from low-income backgrounds disabled students that “make-it” can be seen as inspirational for having “overcome the odds”, it is utter rubbish. Students don’t find higher education difficult – they find trying to conform to a system that is not designed to support them difficult.

There is a wealth of evidence that neurodiverse students have significant advantages in some cognitive areas. Unfortunately, those are cognitive areas which the system sees as different and sometimes even wrong. So they need to fight, either to adapt, or for the freedom to work in a way that works for them. Either way, the student is not the problem.

Everyone who goes to university is under 20

This is very much true for undergraduate students at Imperial, but not across the sector. Furthermore, with the increase in online courses and more flexible degrees the age range of students is broadening.

The idea that all students are young means mature students can struggle to fit in as university campuses and social programmes are not designed for them. This in turn has an effect on the protected characteristics of marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity as the stereotype that all students are young means the needs of those with families can often be overlooked.

All students live on or near campus

Related to age and socioeconomic stereotypes is the idea that all first years live on or near campus in student accommodation and then move into shared accommodation which is close. For financial or family reasons many students may live at home or choose to commute (especially to London institutions).

Failure to consider this means that students can be shut out of activities or services because they do not spend all their time on campus.

Cultural and social stereotypes don’t affect education

Being from a racial, religious, international, or LGBTQ+ community brings a range of stereotypes that can be applied. Many of them not accurate. While these are not related to education they should not be perpetuated and can have a damaging impact on students who are subjected to them.

Scientists have no social skills

Like many other stereotypes this is perpetuated by popular media and relates to common thinking around neurodiversity. It’s a fact: scientists are more likely to be socially inept. This as the title of an article in Times Higher Education is a case in point. It plays on the stereotype to open up an article that is about the prevalence of individuals on the autism spectrum within the sciences.

While true that those on the autism spectrum may struggle with “social understanding”, and may excel in detail-orientated tasks, the conflation of the two things is damaging to science and the image of scientists – and to neurodiverse individuals who should not be defined by their “disorder”.

Science is always correct

The idea that science is immovable and rigidly defined is problematic on several levels. It discourages critical thinking as we are programmed, again by the media, to believe that once something is proved then it becomes fact.

This way of thinking has become more prevalent since the Covid-19 pandemic in which vaccine science particularly has been put under the microscope and challenged by many extreme factions in the media. Science, despite the use of the ‘scientific method’ is still a social consensus. The other problem with this view of science, which becomes particularly apparent for students moving into higher education, is that they are trained to expect correct answers which they may never be able to find. This mindset shift is something that needs to be explored more in higher science education.

Science students all want to be scientists

Or engineering students want to become engineers. Common in research intensive universities, anecdotally at least, is the idea that if you are studying a science degree you must want to be a scientist (or engineer, or doctor). This institutional mindset means that students are offered limited career advice for exploring what else may be available to them as a career option.

Whether you agree or not with these statements is beside the point. Some are evidence informed and need high level structural change to dismantle them, and not just in higher education, much of this starts in schools, in the career advice that is given (or not), or through headline grabbing media. These are for education policy to unravel and for government and governmental bodies to support change at an institutional level.

The other stereotypes listed here however, are more feelings, they are intangible. Intellectually we know that they don’t make sense. Yet they persist, and it is everyone’s job to challenge them, to challenge the feelings on this list, and the feelings and stereotypes that are not.

Things that are true only of one institution, or one area. These need to be challenged too and the best way to start is by writing them down. Take this list as a start, change it, add more, make it your own. Then, then you can start to dismantle them.

7 responses to “It’s time to dismantle higher education’s stereotypes

  1. Science is NOT a ‘social contract’, it is a methodology, perhaps most succinctly defined by the scientific method. You don’t need others to do science and do it well, as history of science demonstrates (erm, Darwin, Newton, Copernicus).

    If anything, you could claim it has a consensus aspect to it, but that consensus depends on rigour in implementing the methodology and the reproducibility of evidence upon which conclusions about what’s been studied are made. That’s why we have peer review, and that’s precisely why STEM conferences where research findings are presented aren’t the congratulatory, goody-goody affairs that e.g., education conferences always turn out being.

    It also should be said that precisely because of its methodological and philosophical underpinning, which mean science seeks to find things out and explain them as they are, it is the only epistemology generating approach that can seek and produce what one defines as ‘right’ (or, correct, or true). That’s despite science not always getting it ‘right’ the first time around, usually due to limitations in the precise applicaiton of method and, more commonly, the capabilities of the required instrumentation.

    It is also quite the statement that biosciences aren’t, or indeed are perceived as less rigorous than say, physics or chemistry. Biology deals with far more stochasticity than physics (apart from quantum physics) and chemistry, to begin with. One should consider the ‘rigour’ of theoretical physics before commenting on the same for biology.

    Still, STEM disciplines do require a significantly greater upfront loading of fundamental knowledge, and engagement in scientific research requires a significantly greater effort, e.g., in time and in funding, so it is not unreasonable to claim these disciplines are harder to study.

    Similar critique should apply to claims like ‘There are fewer women in senior academic roles so women don’t apply.’ Logically, had that held true, no women at all should have ended up in senior academic roles. And can’t we just get into the habit of thinking, as well as encouraging in others to think that we can pursue, and achieve, goals regardless of whether there are ‘role models’ of our kind who have achieved them before? Why do we always have to follow in others’ steps, and indeed only be able to chase dreams if someone previously had successfully chased the same ones, and they looked like us or derived from the same backgrounds as ours?

  2. I have degrees in science (covering physics, biochemistry), law and business. I have supervised PhD students in a range of disciplines. Science is definitely more difficult than social science and requires a greater intellectual rigour and research endeavour to succeed.

  3. “Girls don’t study physics (or other hard sciences)
    The data shows that this is still worryingly accurate HESA data shows engineering, technology, and computing are still strongly skewed towards male students. This is less of a stereotype than a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are fewer women in senior academic roles so women don’t apply.”

    Interestingly I had to sit through 2 hour long ‘mandatory’ training courses yesterday delivered by a female computer science prof on this very subject, she’d noted the lack of female pupils in her physics class when she started as a science teacher. Her favoured source of underlying rhetoric was the University of Toronto’s computer science research into gendered language from an early age, that’s still ongoing: though how much it’s influenced by their ‘Women & Gender Studies Institute’ is unclear. But like many her stance is underpinned by her belief was it’s all the fault of men, particularly white men.

    1. Drive-by comment because I’m out of time to engage, but there’s a lot of room here for discussion of things like the rapid inversion of the gender balance in computing in the 1980s and the Scully Effect in the 1990s, how phenomena like that can arise and how they work… and whether it really is about whether the present situation is the *fault* of “men, particularly white men” so much as it is about acknowledging that, as a class, we’re the architects of systems that are fair when viewed in isolation but might in fact be so impartial that they entrench or even exacerbate disparities that arose separately, and whether the lingering benefits of our dominant social position in the past might make it more difficult for us to see the ways those otherwise-fair systems end up, through nobody’s particular fault, treating us more fairly than they might others.

      If that is the way things are, then there’s no blame to be apportioned – but we would have a duty to work to understand the influence our perspective has, and to do our best to compensate for it. Which, if you do believe things are fair as they are, could understandably come across as being blamed for others’ misfortune.

  4. I don’t see much evidence in the sector of “research being more important than teaching”. I’ve been a student or research and knowledge exchange related professional services staff member at 5 institutions covering Russell Group, former 1994 Group and “ex Poly” institutions in 4 UK regions and teaching and the “student experience” always seem to trump research in institutions’ lists of priorities. In a sector increasingly reliant on international student fees, I don’t see this changing. Research is essential and should carry equal weight but often fails to break even financially even when the outcomes and impact are ground-breaking. Money can be made in consultancy and IP & Commercialisation but for many institutions knowledge exchange and business engagement and the associated infrastructure is a distant third activity or tagged onto research as an afterthought when in reality all 3 activities should be integral to what universities deliver, carry equal weight and intersect and strengthen each other. However, the sector is a long way from ever achieving that although it is clear that the current funding structure within HE in the UK is broken and unsustainable and needs holistic and urgent reform.

  5. I think some of the above comments might conflate difficulty with difference. Natural sciences rely on a much more methodical approach, and that can be difficult to those not that way inclined; social sciences, on the other hand, require a much greater capacity for interpretivism and much greater awareness of perspective and bias that those used to a more methodical approach might struggle with, especially since familiarity with one of those approaches is fostered much earlier in key stage education while the other often doesn’t make its first appearance until FE. Obviously it’s not scalable, but most of the social science students I know would be able to muddle through in a natural science environment while most of the natural science students would be vulnerable to committing some quite fundamental errors. Navigating the influence of your research subjects’ agency isn’t as easy as it appears from the outside, and it’s very easy to be overconfident about.

    I very much appreciated ASBroad’s argument that science is not a social contract (in quotes, which seemed odd) but a methodology with, at best, a consensus aspect – followed by an explanation of the means by which that consensus is protected and the peer review process through which it is socially constructed. A natural scientist, social scientist, and a philosopher of science might describe these things in different terms and with different models, but that doesn’t mean they disagree or that those ideas don’t overlap. I absolutely agree that the scientific method is the best way we have to approach a complete, objective description of our reality, but that doesn’t preclude it being a consensus-based social construction – and while I lean towards the sociological terminology, a philosopher might lean towards describing it as an asymptotic noumenology that compares phenomenological understanding to build towards comprehension of ideas that extend beyond the noosphere (place your bets now on how many of those words I used correctly, your guess is as good as mine).

    Honourable mention to Ms. Pierscionek for proving the point with the highly demonstrative category error, “science is definitely more difficult than social science”, which in part was what prompted this comment in the first place.

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