30 March 2008

All shall be elite



Former Labour education minister Tessa Blackstone on 'elitism':

Elitism is about privilege: it's about focusing attention on elite groups, and the educational institutions that cater for them, at the expense of the rest. Elitism neglects the education system as a whole and worries primarily about the most able ... In post-16 education, elitism is epitomised by traditionalists who promote A-levels as the "gold standard" and reject the new diplomas. (Guardian)

I want to narrow the disparities between people’s attainment, between the highly motivated and the less well motivated, because I want everyone to have a bite at the cherry and a chance to do well ... What I want to ensure is that all universities are really part of a world class system. That means they all have to have resources concentrated on them, right across the board. (BBC Radio4, 26 March)
The idea that we should seek to equalise outcomes between the "highly motivated" and the "less well motivated" is interesting. It suggests that giving everyone the chance to do well means (in the minds of people like Baroness Blackstone) neutering "doing well" to the point where everyone does well, regardless. Demanding that all universities have resources "concentrated" on them, across the board, is equally vacuous. "Achievement for all"; "resources concentrated on every area" — meaningless slogans, no doubt intended to sound appealing.

Perhaps in talking about achievement, Blackstone has in mind something like the following redefinition from the National Union of Teachers (though she uses the word 'attainment', probably because it sounds less threatening):
We need a curriculum which redefines achievement away from its current narrow academic connotations. One which encourages achievement for all and which promotes creativity, collaboration and a sense of adventure. (*)
Opposition education spokesman David Willetts has been placed on the other side of the debate, supposedly to champion the cause of elitism.
The idea of an academic elite is a fundamental, democratic good and one that we must defend vigorously if British education is to compete seriously on the global stage. (Guardian)
So far, so good. However, we have to remember (a) that as a Conservative — a dubious position by current ideological standards — Willetts is on the defensive, and under pressure to prove his egalitarian credentials, and (b) that the concept of elitism unavoidably challenges the prevailing religion of 'social justice'. Hence we cannot be too surprised to find him also arguing that
we have a long way to go in our quest for a truly representative academic elite. Despite constant talk of widening access to universities, the government has failed in its mission to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. The proportion of students from the lowest social groups remains depressingly static — stuck at 19% for years. Only one in five students at elite Russell Group institutions are from the poorest backgrounds.
It appears that, under the Conservatives, we will be permitted to have an elite provided it passes the ideological test of 'equal representation from every social group'. It also appears that the 'elite' of university graduates — currently running at 40% of the population — is not nearly broad enough for Mr Willetts. "We need to do far better to spread opportunities for young people to go to university" he said, in commenting on the failure of a £10 billion programme to increase university attendance.

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Apparently there is a new think tank called Agora whose mission is "to promote serious and searching discussion about higher education and its role in our society." Agora organised the recent debate "Should 'elite' remain a dirty word in education?" involving Blackstone and Willetts.

The temptation to quote from my book is too great.
... the purpose of boggling is to block real questioning, by signalling that an issue has become taboo. What are universities for? it is asked, for example. But there is no intention of considering as a possible answer: for giving scope to the most intelligent, as this answer conflicts with mediocratic ideology. Such boggling helps to confuse potential critics, if they are ingenuous enough to believe it constitutes genuine deliberation or openness to debate.
The decision to start a series of debates on the purposes of higher education, presumably in reaction against a philosophy which has rebranded HE as being primarily about serving the purposes of an egalitarian agenda, may be regarded as admirable by some. However, one wonders whether the resources applied to this might not be better devoted to subsidising those whom the remodelled system now excludes. Action, not more talk, may be what is needed to rescue Britain's declining intellectual capital.

Once you have to start debating what universities are for, chances are it is already too late to shift the consensus back to the earlier model of higher education, which by now has become ideologically discredited. 'Debate' on crucial issues is just as likely to be a signal of capitulation as a sign that dissident perspectives are being taken seriously.

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Someone somewhere — I think on Stumbleupon — describes this blog as "anti-egalitarian". That is a bit misleading. If by "egalitarian" is meant "equal chances for people of equal ability" then in principle I'm all in favour; I just happen to think that intervention by the state to improve matters in this area is just as likely to make things worse as better. However, "egalitarian" tends to mean something else these days: equal representation, in all areas, by all social groups. This is in some ways the opposite of the older definition.

The other way in which the mediocracy thesis criticises the prevailing brand of egalitarianism is by denouncing it as phoney. A mediocracy may foster an illusion of greater equality, and certainly the mantras of fairness, accessibility etc. are mouthed endlessly. But if you peer under the cover, you often find that things are just as nepotistic, cliquey and exclusive as before. It's just that the exclusiveness works on different criteria. There is still an elite, but one that pretends to be populist.



* Bringing Down the Barriers, 2004.