Pay public school kids to go to Post 1992 Universities

Simon Zagorski-Thomas

February 12, 2011

The government is proposing that universities charging over £6000 in student fees would have to offer discounts to minority groups that are under represented at their institution. The idea being that the Russell Group of top UK universities would have to provide financial aid to poorer or disabled students to salve the conscience of the Liberal Democrat widening participation guilt. I’m only half joking when I suggest that post 1992 universities should respond to this government proposal by extending the discount offer to public school educated children – a minority group who are obviously under represented in these institutions. It would after all provide a reciprocal edge to the widening participation agenda that this initiative purports to address. It would encourage these financially stable and, usually, well qualified students to seek out the ‘islands’ and ‘archipelagos’ of research excellence that exist in these universities and reward them with their better retention (from the financial stability) and higher grades (from the training in assessment techniques that public schools offer). There is, however, a problem. These areas of excellence are never in ‘proper’ subjects.

Last week the Russell Group published a guide to their admissions procedures. The Guardian wrote:

It asks students to question why they are not taking traditional subjects: “Are you trying to avoid a challenge?” It states that while there is no “set definition” of a “hard” or “soft” subject, so-called “hard” subjects are like the ones the top universities prefer and are more theoretical. It gives media studies, art and design, photography and business studies as examples of “soft” subjects and states that they are “vocational or have a practical bias”.

In a separate article they wrote:

[Michael] Gove said he had warned the last government that state-school pupils were being “misled” about qualifications. “A generation have been betrayed by Labour ministers who denied poorer children the chance to go to top universities,” he said today. Gove said the government was trying to reverse the “dramatic” rise in the number of children taking “less rigorous, non-academic qualifications”.

It does seem to be a particularly ‘conservative’ viewpoint that says: let’s assume that the hierarchy of academic subjects and university reputations that exists at the moment is the right one and that we want it to remain the same. Therefore the right strategy for government is to encourage people to conform to the rules as they currently stand. Never mind that the Russell Group universities think that doing A level law is less useful than history if you want to do a law degree.

Is there a hierarchy of subjects from heavy weight to light weight? Is media studies easier than English literature? Is psychology easier than chemistry? Is hospitality and catering less important than the history of art? There’s a parallel here with canon formation in music, art and literature in that it is ideologically determined. Surely the whole ideology of higher education and the nub of the arguments about research impact are based on the judgement that vocational subjects are less serious than theoretical ones. Creative writing is less academic than literary criticism. Music performance is less academic than musicology. Thinking is more important than doing… and part of me screams out ‘yes’… in HE. But thinking about doing is as important as thinking per se. And why is it better to learn to think theoretically and critically about history than it is about cultural theory? The judgement is not only that vocational subjects are less serious than theoretical ones, but that new subjects are less important than old ones.

What are the criteria being used to ‘judge’ academic subjects? Could any sane person argue that, in terms of understanding contemporary culture, the study of English literature tells us more than the study of film, television, advertising, computer games and social media? Surely they’re all vital subjects. I can understand that, from an ideological perspective, someone might consider a complex work of literature to be more valuable than a complex work of cinematography – but surely it is exactly that: an ideological perspective. I can also understand that someone may legitimately think the opposite.

There are many ideological forces at work in HE arguing, for example, that science is more important than art or vice versa: that high art is more important than popular culture or vice versa – the list is endless. Unfortunately the idea that these are ideologies rather than truths isn’t popular. Of course, societies have to make ideological decisions about how they are run and a higher education system does have to make these types of judgement. The conservative position of maintaining the status quo may also be characterised as ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – but wasn’t it David Cameron who described us as ‘Broken Britain’? Surely we need to establish some serious criteria about how we value different aspects of our education system? This relates to how we value vocational subjects in relation to academic ones, emerging subjects in relation to traditional ones and how we value the small number of universities at the very top of the sector in relation to the larger number in the rest of it.

Michael Gove is suggesting that the majority of students are wasting their time with “less rigorous, non-academic qualifications” like A levels in Law or Business studies (and presumably all BTEC National qualifications).  He intimates that they should feel betrayed by universities that offer vocational degrees like Media Studies, Music Technology, Film & Video, Business Management etc – and presumably ashamed that they are studying anywhere other than at a Russell Group university.

According to a report by the Centre for the Economics of Education, Russell Group graduates will generally earn more than those from what it calls ‘Modern Universities’. However, according to a report by Universities UK and Price Waterhouse Cooper, the ‘graduate premium’ (increase in lifetime earnings that accrues from a degree) for a history degree is far lower than that for a business studies degree (roughly £50k as opposed to £180k). So doesn’t that mean, in Michael Gove’s terms, that Russell Group universities are betraying students by encouraging them away from business studies (and incidentally, even an economics degree produces less of a graduate premium than a business studies one)?

That would suggest that either the government hasn’t thought this through and it’s based on a narrow, elitist, upper middle class view of higher education, or its a deliberate attempt to denigrate the ‘lower’ tiers of the higher education system.

Are we then moving towards a divided sector of shorter and cheaper vocational courses that concentrate on job training and longer, more expensive degrees that provide a broader education? One thing that can’t be denied is that currently all degree courses have to provide students with ‘graduate’ attributes such as critical thinking, research and self organisational skills. Do we abandon that in favour of courses that provide a narrow range of job specific skills – the very thing that the Russell Group and Michael Gove are rubbishing? It would seem that the policy implications are not to abandon it but to create a two tier system. The top tier would include academic subjects and would continue to take three years to provide a broad education that instils general graduate attributes as well as subject specific knowledge. The lower tier would provide shorter, vocational courses with fewer transferable skills – something more akin to specialised job training than education. Surely this is going to institutionalise the notion of a divided labour force and further reduce social mobility?

I don’t think that education should just be about employability but I understand that for a lot of people it is. What I don’t see, though, is any sense of policy coherence here. If the government do, as they appear to, see employability as central to the higher education agenda, why not use the evidence of employability and earnings from different degree subjects when making recommendations about which courses students should take? Why put employability at the heart of the quality debate and then dismiss the idea of vocational courses?