Towards an elite higher education system that rejects elitism

31 January 2018

The subject of the event – the role of universities in diversifying the elite – is instructive in terms of what I wanted to talk about.

In my view, any discussion about social mobility, widening participation and fair access has to be concerned about entrenched privilege. If we want the former then universities have to be serious about addressing the latter – and I want our higher education system to be in the business of systemic change rather than piecemeal change that is always reliant on the goodwill of powerful elites.

Last year I was told that Oxbridge’s access failures were not the fault of universities because ‘social mobility’ is not the responsibility of universities – these failings are down to the schools, the teachers, the applicants themselves and a product of socioeconomic inequality in our society.

Socioeconomic inequality and disadvantage is not and can never be a zero-sum game. This is not an either/or issue – universities cannot pass the buck or sidestep their responsibilities. If powerful and wealthy institutions do not take the initiative then progress will remain unacceptably slow.

If universities are taking taxpayers’ money in the form of research grants and HEFCE funding, then they have a duty to be national universities – and that means all regions, all races and all classes. Taxpayers in Sunderland or Rochdale or Wales shouldn’t be expected to subsidise the higher education of wealthy students from the Home Counties so universities have to focus on fair access and be held to account on their performance.

More broadly, if universities are able to wash their hands of a responsibility for ‘social mobility’, what we would basically be saying is that the marketisation of higher education is complete. If there is no public duty to ‘social mobility’ and fair access then universities would merely be providing a service in the marketplace and the customer would be paying for this service if they want to consume it and are able to access it. In this scenario education would cease to be a public good, and that is not a situation we can accept, turning the clock backwards on hundreds of years of progress.

And why does this all matter? Because if we are talking about diversifying the elite – then of course universities have a role to play, in particular our top-ranked universities. Our elite universities are a conveyor belt into the elite – they set their graduates up for the top jobs in politics, business, law, the media and every other industry.

It doesn’t look like our top universities are going to give up their grip on being the route into the best jobs anytime soon, so if we are going to get serious about social mobility then we need to look at who is getting the chance to go to these institutions.

I want universities to get serious about contextual data – that is the key to making progress. The issue that they have to address is that a student living on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower with an unstable home life, caring responsibilities and nowhere to do their homework is expected to jump through the exact same hoops as a privileged student at Eton or Harrow. Surely the top free school meal student at an under-performing state school is more talented than an average student at a public school, and all the evidence backs this up.

We need to fundamentally rethink how we define merit and ability to recognise the achievements of young people who have overcome considerable burdens to become outstanding students at 18, and will become outstanding graduates in their twenties if given the chance.

Rt Hon David Lammy MP, Member of Parliament for Tottenham

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