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Slaying dragons: Britain’s world-leading universities

April 27, 2018   4 mins

Britain’s top universities are regularly rated as the world’s best. Institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial dominate global league tables.They produce world-leading research, generate major export revenues for the Exchequer and give Britain real “soft power” influence around the world.

What sort of vandal would want to name them as dragons and set about them with sword and lance? Isn’t criticising those top universities the sort of narrow, success-hating chippiness that holds Britain back instead of making it better?

British national life is dominated by a handful of HE providers

Before I explain myself, I should get the biographical point out of the way. I have a degree from Edinburgh University but no, I’m not a bitter Oxbridge reject. I turned down a place at Oxford, with no regrets.

I only mention this because it’s almost impossible to discuss these issues without reference to personal experience. Like the woeful political debate about grammar schools, people who are supposed to be educated in critical thought throw all detachment out of the window when you talk critically about the sort of institution that they attended.

So I expect that when I say here that Britain’s domination by Oxbridge and other “top” universities is a wasted opportunity and maybe even harmful, some of the graduates of those universities will get upset. And in so doing, they reveal the dragon I really want to slay: the lazy, lopsided, uncritical veneration of supposedly elite universities (and their graduates), at the expense of other forms and providers of education, and the people they serve.

British national life is dominated by a handful of HE providers and the people they educate. Pretty much every significant economic and political power-centre is dominated by graduates of those top universities. Getting into Oxbridge or another “Russell Group” university is almost universally used as a measure of cleverness and success. With reason, too: you need to be smart to get in, and going there will increase your chances of getting the sort of high-paid, high-status job that other people who go to similar universities regard as the most desirable and important.

For all the lip-service paid to “access”, university entry is still skewed towards richer, whiter kids

Oxbridge entry is one of the informal metrics of the social mobility debate: we judge schools and places and administrations by how many kids go to Oxbridge. The now-dormant Social Mobility Commission used to generate good headlines by pointing out that close to zero poor clever kids from the north-east of England (declaration: I suppose I’d have met that description, once upon a time) went to Oxford or Cambridge in any particular year.

But how useful is that measure? The truth is that only a small minority of children from any particular place or setting will go to Oxbridge. They should be praised and celebrated, but what about the ones who don’t? What about the majority – and yes, they are still a majority – of school-leavers who do not go on to higher education?

Sometimes, if you mix in media and political circles, you hear the implicit (or sometimes) explicit suggestion that “everyone goes to university now” because everyone in those circles does. That’s the culture that leaves huge swathes of the UK effectively excluded from political conversation. And that exclusion has dramatic consequences. Whatever you think about Brexit, you should think about the fact that a university education (or lack of same) was possibly the best predictor of how someone would vote in the referendum.

Ipsos Mori reckons 68 per cent of graduates voted remain, while 70 per cent of people with no qualifications backed Brexit. One study, from Leicester University, reckons a few thousand more graduates in the UK population would have kept Britain in the EU.

In other words, the most significant political rupture in modern British politics was, at least partly, a story of non-graduates rejecting a political settlement endorsed (and run) by graduates.

That makes a clear-cut case for change, to ensure that politics, economics, services and society all better reflect the interests, needs and opinions of the people who did not go to university. They need better jobs and better services, especially in education. Further and technical education in Britain is still sadly neglected compared to those princely universities that are held up as the apex of ambition and success.

A few thousand more graduates in the UK population might have kept Britain in the EU

HE gets its own minister in government and its leaders sit in the House of Lords. Where’s the Further Education Minister? Where are the FE leaders in ermine? Why is the policy framework around FE in a state of near constant flux and funding in relentless decline?

The answer lies in that veneration of universities and the domination of their graduates: the people who run the country go to HE, not FE. They want their kids to go to HE, not FE. Policy and budgets are set to reflect that outlook.

Meanwhile, universities coddled by that national veneration can skimp on the innovations that might make them even better, even more significant contributors to a fair and united country. They fiercely defend the three-year full-time degree instead of moving to that flexible modular learning that would help more people combine work and study.

Some universities are enthusiastically embracing innovations like degree-apprenticeships (urged on by the admirable Rob Halfon), but the early adopters are places like Nottingham Trent and Sheffield Hallam: the supposedly “elite” institutions lag shamefully behind their less exalted peers.

And for all the lip-service paid to “access”, university entry is still skewed towards richer, whiter kids, not least because many universities don’t even recognise the qualifications taken by “other” children. SMF research this year showed that half of white working-class and black British students in England get into university with vocational qualifications such as BTECs – but some “top” universities like Cambridge don’t even accept BTECs on applications for entry.

In truth, I’m a reluctant dragon-slayer. I don’t really relish the prospect of seeing Britain’s “top” universities laid low. I just want to see them, along with their graduates, have to fight harder for respect and influence, facing real competition for esteem and money from a further and technical education sector that’s properly valued and properly funded.

I want a country where getting a good degree from a “top” university is only one of the possible paths to wealth, success and influence.

And if those universities don’t play their part in delivering that country, don’t embrace change but insist on defending their own position and status, their biggest problem won’t be my sharp words and pointed observations. It will be the people of Britain who put them to the sword.

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


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