In a post-pandemic world, would an academic honour help level-up graduate outcomes? I once worked with a CBE. We all took her very seriously – because she was a CBE.
Acronyms flew through my short local authority career like buckshot, so I had to ask my colleagues to clarify – CBE? One colleague subtly drew her chin down into her clavicle, which I knew signalled the thought “you gauche American philistine”. I withdrew into the judgement-free space that is the Google search bar, squinting at the mystic totem pole that is the British honours system and quickly resolving to find a new job.
When I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, a highly prestigious American honour society based on academic achievement, I thought I’d kind of exude gravitas like she did. Only one per cent of US four-year college graduates are invited to join, and I was, you know, now a one-percenter.
Instead, I moved to the UK right after graduation, and I still get asked if it was somewhere I ran around in my panties. “It dates back to 1776. Ralph Waldo Emerson was another member,” I explain to little effect.
What’s a Phi Beta Kappa?
The easiest way to explain Phi Beta Kappa is that it’s awarded to the top 10 per cent of liberal arts undergraduates at the top 10 per cent of American universities. In this sense, it’s somewhat like saying you got a (eyes narrow, voice drops an octave) First at Oxford.
Because American colleges and universities have a broad curriculum, it also means a candidate has to do exceptionally well across disciplines. In my case, this included acing calculus, the works of Milton, and “Beginning Jazz Dance”, the hardest of the three. This unique multidisciplinary focus is reflected not only in its membership but also in advocacy work it delivers on behalf of its members across the arts, humanities and sciences, to ensure future generations have access to the wondrous breadth of what higher education has to offer.
Phi Beta Kappa also knits in to the notion of “the talented tenth”. The idea, popularised by member W.E.B. Du Bois, broadly ties achievement in advanced education with a mandate and responsibility to drive social change. Again, in that sense, it’s a bit like graduating from Oxford or Cambridge.
Membership offers connection with “an exceptional network of exceptional people” with the advantages you’d expect – the power to influence when it comes to further study, work and civic involvement. It also carries the cachet you get from being in the same club as presidents and astronauts and yes, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The British angle
It’s usually at this point in the spiel that British eyes start to glaze, so I’ll get to the point of why anyone in the UK should care. There are 290 US colleges and universities that can confer Phi Beta Kappa membership, which acts to demote the importance of where someone might have studied and promotes their intellectual capability in a meritocratic way. If Britain is going to ever level up, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, then maybe it needs to break its fetish with certain institutions and rethink who it signals is its “talented tenth”.
The inescapable fact is that graduates of prestigious universities often have better labour market outcomes, so it’d be wrong to do anything other than ensure entry is as fair as possible. But what about the people who feel like another institution would be a better fit? Or who come into their own after the transition from school?
If these students truly excel at their study and attend a university where the quality of teaching and assessment is high, then it feels somewhat unfair to shut them out of the status and employment prospects they deserve. A national and widely recognised award, perhaps based on some intersection of Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) classification and degree outcome, might help welcome them in where they belong.
Being from Louisiana and witnessing the after-effects of hurricane Katrina, it’s hard to see how the impact of the pandemic won’t be generational. People who have been through trauma have less appetite for upheaval and uncertainty, which may mean additional pressure to keep children closer to home for some time. The problem is that when it comes to employment, their child will be judged on where they did go to university, and not where they could have gone.
If the local university is less prestigious than other higher-tariff options, then it might lead to a scenario where the student performs to a high standard and still exits into a low-paid retail job. It’s hard to argue how higher education delivers value in that situation. But let’s say that person receives a national honour, something like a Phi Beta Kappa for the UK. That then acts to negate the disadvantage caused by something as unfair as perception and goes some way to level up the value of their hard work, education and ability.
The other issue will obviously be what the lost time in school does to people. At first, I was confident that my nine-year-old son would be fine, somewhat underestimating the remedial focus his teacher has had to adopt to bring the class as a whole forward. He attends a state primary in Tower Hamlets, London’s poorest borough.
Some days it feels like standing on the edge of a crater in a horror film, wondering who it will drag down next. They say it might be like this for years. In a parallel universe, one of my son’s high-ability but low-income friends goes to an Imperial or a Cambridge. In this one, though, well – all I know is that he’ll do exceptionally well where he does go, and it would be a deep injustice if that isn’t recognised in some way.
Returning to my original point, I don’t know where the CBE went to university and it doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that she achieved something formidable and deserved my respect. Could a “CBE” of undergraduate HE do the same? Well, Phi Beta Kappa has for 245 years, so at a time when fresh approaches are needed for redressing inequality, it may be worth a go.