Thursday, July 19, 2012

GUEST POST Don’t make the dull middle class go to university

Dr Anonymous is a university lecturer on a short-term contract.

The current consensus about university admissions, although rarely put in quite these terms, is that all middle class children should have a place, plus a generous selection of the Worthy Poor. (A subsidiary assumption is that the middle class will come straight from school, while the Worthy Poor will include mature students).

Hence various attempts to score points from a drop in applications to universities this year. (No one contributing to this debate seems interested in intellectual life; all are motivated social and economic concerns.)

But would it would be a good thing if British universities were attended by far fewer middle class students?

The people best served,in social terms,by the current university system are dull/lazy/feckless middle class children, whether at state or private schools isn’t really relevant in this context. I’ll refer to them as DMC - dull middle class.

Over the last generation or more it has become increasingly difficult for them to avoid going to university, and thus apply for jobs which demand a degree. (See here, based on original research here, although I'm not sure you can access it without electronic access to a university library.)

The number of university places has increased, A-level grades have become less connected to intellectual interest or ability (which is not exactly the same as becoming easier, but is rather close), expectations from parents and teachers have hardened, public debate increasingly assumes that university is a prerequisite for any sort of worthwhile adult life.In these circumstances, it is difficult for DMC students to get off the conveyor belt of educational credentials.

This is a pity, because they are also the worst served by university in intellectual terms: doing the minimum amount of work, and playing the system in various ways. (That they can get away with this is in part because of the increasingly anonymous life at ever-larger universities, but that is another topic).

As I'm a university lecturer, middle-class teenagers of my acquaintance (and their parents) sometimes ask me about their applications. If they haven’t read a book recently, don’t have any intellectual interest or can’t explain their motivation for applying, then I suggest that perhaps university isn't for them, at any rate at this stage, regardless of their splendid GCSEs and AS module results. This advice tends not to be well received - that is another reason why this post is anonymous.

But what would happen if they took my advice? What would happen if DMC pupils were discouraged from applying to university, not by one cantankerous academic, but by parents, teachers, politicians, the media, and universities themselves? Here are some possibilities:

The intellectual life of universities would improve. Lecturers would not have to waste quite so much of their time (and the time of more engaged students)instilling such basics as a work ethic, time management, general knowledge, and how to write an essay. DMC undergraduates expect far more spoon-feeding than any other sector of the student population. Less tangibly, DMC students have an insidious effect on the culture of undergraduate life. They make it more difficult for others to realise how much they should be working, that it is okay to be really interested by a course etc. (Of course there are also uninterested working class students, too, but there far, far, fewer of them, they tend spend more time in paid employment, and are more likely to live at home, so their influence on their peers is much less.)

DMC students wouldn’t be burdened by debt, which is less likely to be matched by a well-paying job as increasing numbers are churned out by the credential system.

DMCs might actually be happier not going to university. Perhaps I seem a little harsh on them. The fact that they aren't academically engaged doesn’t mean they have no worthwhile qualities. Most human qualities aren't purely intellectual, after all. But they (and their parents) are persuaded by the current system to go to university regardless of their own disposition.

Social mobility would be enhanced if it was more difficult for DMC children to go to university. Social mobility should involve the opportunity for people to move down as well as up.(Nick Clegg’s recent speech on the subject contains some good things, but he couldn’t deal with this central point.) Yet the educational system at the moment serves to limit downward mobility for the DMC. Universities shouldn’t really exist to facilitate social mobility at all, but if this is what is expected of them, then it should be pursued systematically.

It might be claimed that the economy would suffer from fewer graduates, but graduates usually get better-paid jobs because they are graduates (which in the case of DMC graduates is because they have middle class parents), rather than because of specifics learnt at university, which they could not learn elsewhere. (Randall Collins' book Credential Society is very good on this.)

Of course, the idea of discouraging DMC students violates far too many financial, political, and institutional assumptions to be a credible policy suggestion at this stage. But perhaps it is a worthwhile aspiration?
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Anonymous said...

Mostly I agree, but wouldn't another consequence be that the university sector would contract and there would be less academic jobs?

I think part of the problem is that many academics have a vested interest in maintaining the current high numbers of university students (for the reason I just mentioned) and politicians do as well (for the same reason that leads to your advice to DMCs not being well received - no doubt either by them or by their parents).

Gawain said...

Agree with both the piece and the first comment. The author is clearly an academic at a quality university. However, following the conversion of polys etc to 'universities' and the 'degrees for all' policy (how fallacious is the logic: "all graduates get good jobs therefore if we make more graduates more people will get good jobs? But that's a sophisticated as it was!), most 'academics' are simply glorified trainers with no real credentials, whose jobs and good pensions depend on processing numpties at vast expense through numpty courses and on to numpty jobs. Of course no turkey is going to vote for Christmas, so these 'academics' will defend their Universities of Steeple Bumpstead to the last ditch - and DMC's parents will defend to the last ditch the rights of the DMCs to shell out fortunes on crud degrees in crud subjects from crud colleges, because who wants to be the first generation that stopped going to 'Uni' ('Uni' - shudder). It's all terribly depressing and almost the most depressing thing of all is that our party has such a blind spot about expanding "access to higher education", apparantly sincerely believing that because we churn out lots of degrees that will really equip us to compete in IT, engineering, construction and science with the real graduates of China and India, that it won't do a thing about it.

Meantime, skilled professionals from the EU harvest up good UK jobs for which our 'graduates' are laughably unqualified.


Simon Titley said...

I agree with this post entirely. It is clearly absurd to aspire to send 50% of all children to university, since this implies that everyone with an IQ of 100 or over has the intellectual capacity to cope with degree-level education. And if 40-50% of people end up with degrees, the degree becomes worthless and we get academic inflation, with a new demand for masters courses from students anxious to stand out from the crowd.

However, there is a practical problem. The sharp elbows of the middle classes always monopolise the best of what public services have to offer. If the number of university places is reduced so that (in theory) only those with the necessary intelligence and intellectual capacity are admitted, how do you stop the DMCs hogging places that more properly belong to bright working class students? How do you prevent a reduction in the number of places turning into an even bigger hurdle for working class students?

My fear is that, faced with rationing, middle class parents would resort to spending even more on private tuition and coaching to ensure that their dumb children win university places.

Tristan said...

I agree entirely.

I'm glad I did my degree - but I was doing it because it was an intellectual pursuit. Earning potential was never a consideration.

A small amount of what I studied at University has been useful to me in work, but most of what is most important day to day has been learned through working and learning in work. The intellectual rigour learned at university is probably the biggest gain, and that is not something DMC's will gain.

Manfarang said...

A university degree long ceased to be a passport to a good job for many graduates.
Still British degrees are valued overseas and I was able to get a work permit with one in the Land of Smiles.(although plenty of fake ones abound there!)

Charlieman said...

It's clearing time in a couple of weeks and UK universities will be hosting mini call centres so that applicants can talk to admissions tutors over the phone. In yesteryear, admissions tutors sat in their offices waiting for the query to arrive but everything is much more organised today.

One of the reasons for this is that it is really important for universities to recruit the right number of students, as defined by government. Too few on a course loses income from fees but too many generates penalties -- past foul ups when 10% too many applicants were accepted for a course place might now put a university up the financial creek. As a consequence, lots of money and organisation is being placed in recruiting the "correct" number of students.

As far as university administration are concerned, the "correct" number of students is the number that has been approved by government for a fees loan. How this number is determined is a mystery to me.

A second mystery is why there is no debate about the first mystery. I am astonished that central planning of this type escapes discussion.

Previous comments have questioned the purpose of 40%+ university entrance for 18+ year olds. I can't add anything to Simon Titley's words about the effects on young people.

But a more general consequence is that university administrators are driven to think about size. Or more bluntly, most universities think that they would be better if they were bigger.

Lots of universities have physical constraints on development; the campus parkland or city development that seemed capacious 30 years ago cannot accommodate three times as many students. But universities persist in the belief that they can overcome space problems, ignoring the alternatives: get better and get into the international university rankings. To raise the money to get better, a university has to obtain more income from non-government sources, more donations and things that I have never considered.

International rankings raises the problem of league tables. The importance that UK universities place on UK league tables cannot be overstated and they drive how universities operate internally. Perhaps the most significant ranking is "student satisfaction". This is a catch all category that covers quality of teaching and quality of student life. Unsurprisingly, when university administrators decide where to spend money it may end up on the latter.

Another thing about league tables are that they service those with choice: the DMCs described in the OP who have parents to support them financially. Students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to live at home in order to attend a local university. For them, league tables are an irrelevance. Thus there is a further division between the former polytechnics and the pre-1992 universities.

Fashion. Crime CSI was a popular television series that led to many student applications for degree courses in forensic science and criminology -- side avenues of base disciplines that are usually post grad study. Universities attempted to cash in with new undergraduate courses, the idea being ill founded because fashion is ephemeral. The fact that anyone took it seriously suggests a misunderstanding of the purpose of higher education.

I could go on. Is anyone interested in reading about unpopular UG disciplines such as Chemistry, which struggle to find UG applicants for departments conducting excellent research.

Jonathan Calder said...

Dr Anonymous has asked me to post this comment...

Thanks for your interesting omments, in the main I agree. I’m not going to try to translate my observations into tangible policy proposals. So just a couple of points:

1. There are great number of DMC students at long-established fashionable universities, which have grown enormously in size, mainly to accommodate them. Many DMCs look down on new universities. In my limited observation, snobbishness about new universities comes from DMCs more than other students, and perhaps reflects something of their own anxieties.

2. Academics don’t have an interest in maintaining high student numbers. University bosses do, because they tend to like institutional empire-building (so does the leadership of the Universities and Colleges Union, for similar reasons). Lecturers and vice-chancellors live in very different worlds.

3. Reducing DMC student numbers need not reduce the number of academic jobs. Student-staff ratios have been increasing for decades; more students have not resulted in a corresponding increase in academic posts. Even if ratios were brought down to the levels of the early 1990s (without daring to hope for more than that), plenty of DMCs could leave…

Anonymous said...

"Reducing DMC student numbers need not reduce the number of academic jobs. Student-staff ratios have been increasing for decades; more students have not resulted in a corresponding increase in academic posts. Even if ratios were brought down to the levels of the early 1990s (without daring to hope for more than that), plenty of DMCs could leave…"

But obviously student-staff ratios aren't going to be decreased, particularly in the present economic climate.

Given that reality, many academics do have an interest in keeping student numbers high. I don't think it does any good to pretend that that isn't part of the problem.