LM Archives
  5:24 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Intellectual poverty

Under new guidelines drawn up by the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), universities will be rewarded with extra funds if they recruit more students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. At present students from wealthy backgrounds are 12 times more likely to go on to university than their working class counterparts, and the aim is to redress the balance. The HEFCE is drawing up a list of 'socially inclusive' universities, promising 30 million extra funding for those which 'successfully recruit non-traditional students'.

Brian Fender, chief executive of the HEFCE, says this new initiative will 'benefit a wide range of students by raising the profile of teaching and learning in higher education'. But to me, the new recruitment drive looks more like an insult to working class students that will drag academic standards down further still.

The HEFCE is working from the conclusion reached by Sir Ron Dearing last year: that university life is too stuffy and academic for many working class students. Universities will only be deemed 'socially inclusive' and be liable for extra funding if they break with tradition and create an open and welcoming climate for poorer students; students who are invariably less used to rigorous tests and higher learning than their wealthier counterparts.

The implication that higher education should be made more accessible to the poor by being made easier looks like an updated version of the argument that the masses are too stupid for university. But many working class students aspire to university as a means of bettering themselves and making something of their lives. Bringing university life down to 'their level' is not only patronising; it defeats the purpose of higher education as a means of self-improvement.

Today's educationalists and those who fund higher education object to the idea that there is a standard of excellence to which everybody should aspire, and would rather education was more inclusive of the poor, women, ethnic minorities and the disabled. So they suggest that university should change to make room for disadvantaged students, rather than the other way round. Instead of proposing that working class students should be given a higher level of pre-university education to prepare them for university life, they want university to be brought down to the lowest common denominator to make everybody feel welcome.

In the past, some of the more 'elitist' universities avoided such a retreat from the standard of excellence by accepting only working class students who had proved their worth and their thirst for learning. But now that those who hold the purse strings in higher education are threatening to withhold extra funds from colleges which refuse to accept and accommodate the disadvantaged, no doubt this slippage will become obligatory.

Brendan O'Neill

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk