Should the UK join the Phi Beta Kappa club?

American living in London Lydia Dye-Stonebridge suggests a national honour society system could help redress inequality.

Lydia Dye-Stonebridge is President of The London Association of Phi Beta Kappa.

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.

After disaster

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.

6 responses to “Should the UK join the Phi Beta Kappa club?

  1. I’m not completely convinced about adding another level of elitism to the British educational system, when Phi Beta Kappa has issues with representation much like the education system here. To me, as a Black American living in the UK, this just feels like another added level that would become out of reach for underprivileged students from low socio-economic backgrounds. And let’s be real, the American Higher Education system has the same problems, those from Ivy league schools get far better treatment in the job market than those from a state funded school even with the badge of Phi Beta Kappa. I think a fresh approach would be to find a way to rethink these traditional approaches to education that have existed for 245 years.

  2. I am afraid that I can’t see how adding another layer to a society already built on elitism (Oxbridge, class system, Russell Group, private schools, grammar schools in some areas) supports a levelling-up agenda. What makes one a 1%’er and how much of it is pre-destined before you are even born by the socio-economic circumstances of your parents, their upbringing and their heritage? We don’t need labels – we need to move away from labels and look at what is underneath. This is actual talent, drive and potential – which may not always be evidenced by exam performance and being a 1%’er, and for some may emerge later in life.

  3. Rather than finding new ways of entrenching current biases of our higher education system and continuing to use Oxbridge and the Russell group as the gold standard by which we make all comparisons of “quality”, how about we develop quality measures which look at how much value institutions add to their students.

  4. I’m sceptical too I’m afraid. Any attempt to define a top proportion of UK universities in teaching (or top anything) runs into all the myriad problems that have affected TEF and would be massively controversial to boot. I fear a significant section of the ‘top universities’ would be the ‘elite’ / Russell Group universities who have more resources, and so would not benefit disadvantaged students unless they happened to go to those universities. A better solution, which the author sort of identifies at the end of the paper, is to ensure fair access to our best universities.

    The common UK classification system SHOULD identify and reward the top performing students in a way that acts regardless of University and is nationally comparable, and so do some of what the author wants without introducing a new system. In practice, it doesn’t, for a number of reasons which have again been well rehearsed here. One reason is because of ‘grade inflation’ over the past 20 years. Higher proportions of students getting 1sts means it is harder for the very top students to stand out. One answer might to be have a new national degree class (e.g. starred first) for the elite performers. Another might be to move to a system of GPA rather than broad classes.

  5. It’s another no from me – just looks like another scheme to provide more power to the privileged and I simply cannot see how it would promote social mobility – absolutely not the direction we want to go in.

  6. Thank you for all your comments. I am state educated and cost was a factor when I applied to university – I couldn’t afford an Ivy without taking on a large amount of debt so I opted to go to a state university (albeit a selective one away from home). I also finished my degree one year early to save money, and I worked all three years on top of taking a heavy course-load. While both of my parents went to university, they went close to home and my dad was first generation.

    Am I privileged? Normal is probably a better description (my name is hyphenated to placate my mother-in-law, as I wanted to retain my maiden name and she was horrified). Most of our members are somewhere in the range of normal, as only 10% of those attending the Ivys can earn membership – and the non-Ivys far outnumber the Ivys in terms of contribution. Yes, some of our members are affluent and yes, some power goes to them (but arguably they still have to earn it). But does it also go to a far wider range of people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Absolutely. W.E.B. Du Bois, a black man born three years after the Civil War, is a fitting example. The idea of the “talented tenth” was one primarily to advance Black equality.

    While I was working at the City of London Corporation, I contributed to their social mobility strategy. One of the greatest impediments to social mobility, in my opinion, is that many employers are not fair in who they invite to interview, much less in who they select. You have one candidate who has a 2:1 from Cambridge and you have one that has a First, but it’s from a post-1992 university. Guess who gets invited to interview? And guess who is probably favoured from the moment they walk in the door? And who gets fast-tracked into management once they are in? So how do you begin to fight that bias for those attending good institutions that don’t have “prestige”? Hope corporate Britain has a change of heart?

    The best solution is of course a system that is fair, but any visitor to the British Museum will know we’ve been wearing gold on our bellies for a very, very long time. There is always going to be elitism, but if it’s based on merit and intellectual ability, surely it’s better than one based almost purely on socio-economic class?

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