Widen­ing ac­cess is a hard sell when the mid­dle class feel like vic­tims, says Sir Nigel Thrift

Mid­dle-class griev­ance in the UK would make a re­dis­tri­bu­tion of top univer­sity places a dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal sell, says Nigel Thrift

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Sir Nigel Thrift is the for­mer vice-chan­cel­lor and pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of War­wick. He has just stepped down as the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Sch­warz­man Schol­ars.

Last week, the Sut­ton Trust called on elite UK uni­ver­si­ties to make a “rad­i­cal change” to their ad­mis­sions poli­cies by sig­nif­i­cantly in­creas­ing the num­ber of re­duced-grade of­fers they make to dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. The call was made in the wake of crit­i­cism of the uni­ver­si­ties of Oxford and Cam­bridge for ad­mit­ting so few black stu­dents – which, ac­cord­ing to for­mer ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter David Lammy, amounts to “so­cial apartheid”.

Such storms reg­u­larly re­cur be­cause in­clu­siv­ity mat­ters a lot. Few peo­ple would deny that a univer­sity should be a haven for all tal­ents, re­gard­less of back­ground: an elite univer­sity even more so. But there are lim­its, and th­ese lim­its are, above all, po­lit­i­cal. How far are politi­cians and vice-chan­cel­lors will­ing to go to guar­an­tee equal ac­cess to elite uni­ver­si­ties that have be­come only more at­trac­tive as ever greater pro­por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion ac­cess higher ed­u­ca­tion?

Of course, there has been real and wel­come progress over the past few years in pro­mot­ing ac­cess to elite uni­ver­si­ties, and this is not to be dis­par­aged. For ex­am­ple, chil­dren from dis­ad­van­taged ar­eas of the UK are 52 per cent more likely to go to highly se­lec­tive uni­ver­si­ties than they were in 2009. Even from a low base and against a back­ground of in­creas­ing places, that is im­pres­sive. But it is not easy to see this rate of progress be­ing main­tained with­out more

dras­tic ac­tion be­ing taken to shift the stub­born in­equities that char­ac­terise the for­tunes of cer­tain so­cio-eco­nomic and eth­nic groups, such as quo­tas, lotteries or craft­ing classes to re­flect all kinds of dif­fer­ent tal­ents and back­grounds.

Elite uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ment still rarely ad­vo­cate such ac­tions, how­ever, be­cause they would con­flict di­rectly with the fact that elite uni­ver­si­ties are pre­cisely the ones that pro­duce elites – whose ex­ist­ing mem­bers would stand to lose the most. That’s why top uni­ver­si­ties tend to em­pha­sise both their elitism and their in­clu­siv­ity. They shout loudly about the lat­ter, while know­ing full well that they are also part of a chain of ed­u­ca­tional in­equal­ity.

In the US, the po­si­tion is starker. The old leisured elite, pre­vi­ously fo­cused on con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion, has in­creas­ingly be­come what Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia so­cial re­searcher El­iz­a­beth Cur­rid-Halkett calls an as­pi­ra­tional class. Its mem­bers com­pete in a fierce form of mer­i­toc­racy that ne­ces­si­tates ever greater spend­ing on “in­con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion”, such as in­vest­ments in their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion. The top 10 per cent of US house­holds now spend al­most four times as much on this as they did in 1996.

From their ear­li­est days, the chil­dren of such house­holds have to run on a tread­mill to gain ac­cess to the best schools and then uni­ver­si­ties. This re­quires en­gag­ing pri­vate tu­tors, seek­ing out all kinds of juicy ex­tra­mu­ral ac­tiv­i­ties, demon­strat­ing pow­ers of lead­er­ship and gain­ing only the best place­ments. So­cial me­dia makes things worse by pro­vid­ing a plat­form on which th­ese chil­dren con­stantly com­pare them­selves with oth­ers. No won­der many live in a per­ma­nent state of anx­i­ety, which is man­i­fested in, for ex­am­ple, their in­creased use of an­tide­pres­sants, coun­selling and ther­apy.

In the UK, too, a mid­dle-class ed­u­ca­tional arms race has de­vel­oped – al­though at gen­er­ally lower lev­els of ex­pen­di­ture – as, un­der­stand­ably, par­ents try to do the best for their chil­dren. Even ig­nor­ing the is­sue of pri­vate schools, there are still plenty of other in­vest­ments to be made. Mov­ing house to ac­cess the best state schools has be­come com­mon­place. Pri­vate tu­tor­ing is be­com­ing a must-have. Chil­dren are obliged to par­tic­i­pate in all kinds of ex­tra­mu­ral ac­tiv­i­ties so that their CVs stand out, usu­ally at an ex­tra cost. The op­por­tu­ni­ties opened up by un­paid in­tern­ships are also hoarded by the mid­dle class. And the tempo of this mer­i­to­cratic com­pe­ti­tion is in­creas­ing. By the time th­ese chil­dren get to univer­sity, in­vest­ment in them will al­ready have been very sub­stan­tial, and will likely con­tinue with a post­grad­u­ate leg-up.

Im­por­tantly, all this is tak­ing place against the with­drawal of many mid­dle-class priv­i­leges, such as pen­sion tax re­lief and a gen­eral squeeze on some mid­dle-class in­comes that is start­ing to fuel gen­uine anger (just look at one of the chief de­mands of mid­dle-class pop­ulism: the abo­li­tion of tu­ition fees). In­creas­ingly, even the bet­ter-off seg­ments of the mid­dle classes of­ten see them­selves as vic­tims.

It isn’t just about aus­ter­ity. It’s also a more gen­eral sense of griev­ance, part of which comes from the feel­ing that their chil­dren are hav­ing to work ever harder just to stand still – even when the mer­i­toc­racy has been care­fully struc­tured to make sure that they are the win­ners. Even after all that ed­u­ca­tional in­vest­ment, the life chances of their off­spring may be re­stricted in com­par­i­son with theirs: some­thing that grates on both chil­dren and par­ents. Un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances, re­strict­ing ac­cess to elite uni­ver­si­ties in or­der to admit oth­ers would be just about the fi­nal straw for the mid­dle class, and a very brave po­lit­i­cal move.

The re­sult is that politi­cians and vicechan­cel­lors of elite uni­ver­si­ties will con­tinue to pro­mote in­clu­siv­ity, but only up to a point.

Even after in­vest­ment, the life chances of their off­spring may be re­stricted in com­par­i­son with theirs: some­thing that grates on chil­dren and par­ents

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