X Close

How university re-establishes hierarchy

Credit: Getty

April 1, 2019   4 mins

The least significant years of my formal education were the final three: those that took place at university. I suspect that’s true for most graduates – the main exception being those training for a particular job (the medics and engineers, for example.) On the whole, we should be much more concerned with early years learning – and with what happens in adolescence, when the brain is busily rewiring itself in preparation for adulthood.

So, why do the details of a person’s college education loom so large in how we perceive ourselves and others? Why should these three or four years influence the next 30 or 40? Why have we gone to so much trouble to expand the university system and burden the young with debt when they should be saving? Why have we turned jobs that were once open to teenage school leavers into graduate-only professions? Why does a country like the UK score so highly on the quality of its universities and yet do so badly on skills and training?

One could argue that in a knowledge economy, the university system is how employers identify knowledge workers. However, A levels can do that – and across a wider range of subjects. Some people might add that university is about character as well as qualifications – but in my experience, most graduates leave university not only with a piece of paper, but also with a lot of growing up still to do (I certainly did).

Oh, and please don’t tell me this is all to do with instilling a love of learning. In this anti-intellectual, sub-literate age that just won’t wash.

No, I’m afraid the university boom is more to do with the re-establishment of hierarchy. In the 20th century we smashed up the old symbols of status; being innately hierarchical creatures, we’ve found sly ways of creating new ones. The university system provides an ideal medium.

First of all, it is ostensibly meritocratic – while you are sent to school by your parents, you go to university as your own person. Furthermore, which university you are admitted to is supposedly determined by ability rather than by what your family can afford to pay for (more about that later). So unlike any signifiers of status conferred during childhood, any status based on one’s higher education passes the smell test.

The university system is now big enough to include a large and diverse proportion of the population. But at the same time the range of institutions contained within the system is wide enough to produce gradations of status. Best of all, that status once acquired cannot be lost or superseded by one’s less-favoured rivals. The university you went to is a permanent mark upon your CV, it cannot altered by how big or how little an effort you make later in life. Those who get into the ‘right’ university aged 18, will carry that advantage with them throughout their careers (at least among people and organisations that care about such things).

What should be supremely meritocratic often isn’t – especially when the wealthy and well-connected parents go to absurd lengths to get their children into elite institutions. The recent college bribery scandal in the US was a prime example.

However, as Kevin Carey points out in the New York Times, in many cases, ma and pa needn’t have bothered:

“In 2014, the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger published an analysis of the benefits of attending a highly selective college. They found that, after statistically controlling for students’ SAT scores, economic background and college ambitions, the long-term financial returns are ‘generally indistinguishable from zero.’ Students who are poised to succeed tend to do so even if they don’t get into the Ivy League.”

That said, the same study found that “students who come from less privileged backgrounds benefit greatly from selective colleges”.

A separate study found that “while many kinds of colleges can help students move to the top 20% of the income distribution from the bottom 20%, moving to the top 1% from the bottom 20% almost always requires a highly selective institution.”

But is this explained by the quality of the education that these students receive or by the status of an exclusive label and the social networks they can plug into? If it’s more the latter, then we’ve invented a very expensive way of helping a few students, while painting a meritocratic gloss on a system that still serves the interests of the privileged.

Is there not a more productive (and less Faustian) way of helping a greater number of people? Carey cites another study which found that “students who majored in high-demand fields such as engineering at less selective public universities earned more than similar students who chose other majors at more selective universities.”

It’s hard not to conclude that the higher education system is now driving a major misallocation of both public and private resources.

In the UK, a recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that “[student] loan write-offs now account for 90% of government spending on HE”. Furthermore, this subsidy is being driven “mechanically” to those subjects and institutions that make the least contribution to students’ future job prospects.

The tuition fee and loan system was supposed to increase the independence of the HE sector and expand opportunity for students – and all in the name of meritocracy, of course. The reality is that a system in which “government can expect to write off around half of loans issued” is still deeply dependent on the state. What has changed, however, is that “the government is much less able to target the money it spends on HE”.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we need politicians willing to admit that the funding of the higher education sector is a mess – not least because our attitude to the status conferred by higher education is messed-up.

If we’re more interested in the reality than the mere appearance of meritocracy, then we need a root-and-branch rethink of the entire system.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments