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
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.
Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998