Elitism is the enemy of merit

by e_e_evans PhD student

OK, this is going to be a knotty one….

Let me tell you a couple of quick tales before starting to provide much needed background:

The second High School I attended was a selective grammar. This was 2003 where such things were so rare as to be considered as legends along with wyvern on maps (“here be dragons”). Current plans may very well soon resurrect this mastodon but without its former social context (the training ground for the white collar work force from bank clerks to solicitors) I’m not sure what, if any, good it can do. But I digress. The point is it was an unusual educational environment (a C grade wasn’t seen as a passing mark so much as barely above failure). It gave you a warped sense of what ‘normal’ actually was let me tell you! or so I thought.

I discovered later that when it came to the pursuit of post-16 career choices my school was ahead of the curve… they believed there was one way to go about it. And that was sixth form followed by University. Out of a year group of 120 (yes I went to high school in a small town surrounded by rural villages, so sue me!) I’d say barely a handful didn’t actually carry on into sixth form (on balance we may have actually gained more students then those who left!) and everyone, and I mean everyone, was expected to get their UCAS applications done. And not just done, done for the Oxbridge deadline despite the fact that only a dozen or so people actually applied to study there. There was no doubt in my school’s mind that their students all went to university. And I’d say that, more or less, that’s how things panned out.

Now I took the road less travelled, I didn’t go straight to university. I worked as a church youth worker for a year and did a distance learning diploma as part of the job. To begin with my teachers all but had a fit. How dare I go against the grain?! Granted, they simmered down when I explained my plan and finally conceded that if I wanted to apply when I actually had my A level grades, well, at least that rid the process of so much uncertainty.

This is in complete and total contrast to others whom I know well who were the only one, or one of a small handful, from an entire year group to go to University. Chalk? Meet cheese.

There are lots of social reasons why university still is seen as a path travelled by “other people”. Just as I was embedded in a school that expected me to apply to university with no other option presented as an alternative, other schools will take the opposite approach (if they offer job and careers advice at all!)

University is seen as expensive, a debt few people earning less than the national average wage could conceive of being able to pay back (debt was a reason I nearly didn’t go to university myself). As a young person grows up they become attune to the worth of money relative to their background. £50 can mean very different amounts to people. For some, that’s a little, for others, that amount is a lot.

University is seen as elitist. Full of aging academics in funny gowns talking in some weird hybrid of English, Latin and Ancient Greek to lecture halls of quietly vegetating students. While for the most part this is very far from the truth the behaviour of certain academics in the public eye don’t break down this stereotype, they reinforce it.

Now I don’t live in a hole. I’m fully aware of the issues of controversial speakers having invites to events withdrawn, the #black-lives-matter movement hopping over the Pond to the UK, the spat between Student Union Officers at other universities and the students they are meant to represent with relation to diversity (or lack their of) and finally, the redefinition of the words sexist, racist, culture and violence.

When said-certain academics speak out against these people who wish to silence discourse their words are not heard by their target audience. They are heard by everyone else.

When Richard Dawkins created the “university is probably not for you” trend on twitter I am sure it began with wanting to tell the hyper-sensitive minority already in universities that reasoned debate and the challenging of ideas are the very point of universities. Alas, instead it will be added to a continuing list of reasons why university will be seen as something for “other people” and not a possibility for everyone.

The odd thing is is that I always thought University was for clever people. People who were smarter than me and for a lot of my schooling it was an unobtainable goal in my mind. But when I got to the applying stage it turned out I was academically good enough to apply. I didn’t think University was for the rich, middle class (of which I was not) but for the bright and hard working. With emphasis on the “hard working”.
To quote Thomas Edison: What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

(Aside: Isaac Newton attended university because he hated being a farmer but had been made to farm by his mother. Lucky for us his old school master convinced him to finish his education and then go on to university.)

Widening university access is vitally important. I’ve expressed this feeling many times before that given equal educational opportunities those with the skills and drive should achieve their fullest potential. We’re still not there yet in this country, let alone globally ,but here’s a few crumbs of food for thought which probably won’t win me any friends.

  1. Full-time university study is not the only path to a degree or even a vocation
    I was heartened to see in the news recently that a fully on the job, apprentice-style nursing course will be soon implemented within the NHS. If we are to admit as true that certain subjects are necessarily less traditionally academic and more hands-on it makes perfect sense to train people with that philosophy in mind. I would rather have a plumber who trained on the job fix my water pipes than someone who did an academic degree focused on computer simulations of fluid dynamics! (Hyperbole for rhetorical effect, don’t get cross with me!)
  2. We must avoid snobbery regarding the possession (or lack thereof) of degrees
    “Gradibus ascendimus” or “ascending by degrees” (the witty motto of Grey College, Durham) is certainly one way to get places. Indeed it should be the great social equaliser. If you have the knack, you’ll get the letters after your name. But in the same way as we shouldn’t measure success as amount of money in the bank we shouldn’t measure it by the acquisition of qualifications. Success can be measured and achieved in so may ways and for many the path of social mobility will be through university education however…
  3. University may not be the right path
    We must make sure that all paths are open to everyone.
    Monty Python says it better than I can…

There should be no disgrace in a student from a private school wanting to be a butcher in the same way as their is no disgrace in a student from a comprehensive school aspiring to be a judge. That is making sure all paths are open to everyone not making it so that university becomes the only path for everyone. To reiterate, the point of widening access and outreach is to give people choice to do what they want to do in accordance with what they are good at.

We have to get away from any notion that a person’s worth is measured by external forces, especially when those measures are informed by the prejudices of others. We must accept that the brightest and best may not actually fit within the mould of universities because we know that people learn and engage in different ways. All paths are equally valid, especially if we have the choice of paths to take.
After all, there was some German bloke called Albert who disliked his schooling, refused the go into the family trade, who couldn’t get a job as a teacher and ended up worked in a patient office… and then discovered the theory of special relativity!

For anyone reading this who still thinks that a career path they’d like to take “isn’t for people like me” I’m here to tell you that because you want to follow that path, it is for people exactly like you.
To speak from the knowledge of but one path: I assist teaching at a university and I would rather be under-resourced and teach only a dozen students who battled their way to be in those classrooms than have the flashiest labs in the world and have to teach a dozen-dozen students who arrived at the university gates by taking the path of least resistance out of social expectation.

The author of this blog once again reminds the reader that the opinions expressed herein are purely her own and do not represent the university she is currently at. However, in preference, please send all hate mail to her lab so she can X-ray it before opening it. 

deihx

Remember, if you do chose to go to university, you too can have the opportunity to have Prof. Stephen Hawking photo-bomb your pictures.

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