Thursday, 5 February 2009

UK Universities: Snobbery and Decay?

I am coming to think that with all the lazy analysis in articles in 'The Guardian' newspaper that I should top reading it. Then again, it is proving to be an excellent prompt for my postings here and without that I would lose out on the contentment I get from blogging. What does strike me, though, is that I post only in the evenings and in my other spare time. The resources at my disposal are only what I can locate on the internet and the occasional newspaper. I assume (possibly wrongly, but I do not think so) that anyone writing for a national newspaper even just as a columnist has access to more research resources than me and they are paid to do it, rather than as a hobby. This is why I call the analysis 'lazy' because they simply do not bother to bring together the information necessary to produce a well-informed article or column piece.

The focus of my irritation today is an article entitled 'Students have been sold a lie' (31st January 2009) written by Decca Aitkenhead. You would assume it was an article about the fact that graduates are gaining less of an advantage from receiving a degree that university and government publicity promised. However, instead you have a very snobby article denigrating the so-called 'new' universities. Before going further, it is worthwhile exploring the different designations of UK universities, the changes in which are part of Decca's complaint.

'Ancient' universities, i.e. pre-late 19th century: the medieval ones - Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and the 'latecomers' (i.e. in the 1820s-30s), St. David's, University College London, Kings College London and Durham.

'Redbrick' universities established in the 19th century: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle (famously featured in the Channel 4 documentary series 'Redbrick') and Sheffield. The term 'redbrick' in common usage expanded in the 1960s to cover any university in a large UK city. An oddity in this category is Keele built in 1949 between the Victorian and 1960s expansions but generally now grouped with these earlier ones. Wikipedia wrongly puts it in the 'plate glass' category.

On Wikipedia I came across a term, I had never heard before: 'plate glass' universities, though apparently it was coined by Michael Beloff in 1968. These were built in the expansion of the 1960s. In my youth they were called the 'new' universities and then were lumped in with 'redbrick'. I suppose this new term is to distinguish them now from the newer 'new' universities, the post-1992 ones. Anyway this grouping includes: East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick and York. They were on the edge of medium-sized towns/cities but on greenfield sites, for example East Anglia is on the fringes of Norwich, Sussex close to Brighton and Warwick next to Coventry. Beloff actually neglected many other universities that came in the 1960s expansion but that which we would include in this category: Aston, Bath, Bradford, Brunel, City, Herriot-Watt, Loughborough, Reading, Salford, Southampton, Stirling, Strathclyde, Surrey, Ulster. Again they fit the pattern of the ones above, e.g., Brunel on the western edge of London, Surrey in Guildord, Aston on the edge of Birmingham and Bath, Bradford, Salford, etc. in medium-sized cities. Some universities seem to be left out of these lists, notably those making up the University of Wales.

'New' or 'Post-1992' universities. For the history of these we have to go back to the 1960s with the expansion of higher education. Alongside the universities being built at the time were polytechnics. These were also higher education institutions but with a focus on technical and vocational subjects. They were often run by local authorities, which meant that they could be seen as simply extensions to local secondary and further education. This was despite the fact that many had origins dating back to the 19th century, such as London Polytechnic, established in 1838. They tended to offer 'ordinary' (as opposed to 'honours') degrees. The application process to them was separate to that of universities and people were able to apply to 5 polytechnics and 4 universities simultaneously. Polytechnics offered degrees at all levels including to doctorate. Unlike the universities which monitored their own standards of degree awards all polytechnics were monitored by the independent Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) which ran from 1965-92. Despite this the polytechnics (in contrast to institutions named this in France) were looked down upon as un-academic and inferior. In 1992 all the polytechnics became 'new' universities, though this term was applied more broadly. Those that had been polytechnics are: Anglia Ruskin, Birmingham City, Brighton, Bournemouth, Central Lancashire, Coventry, De Montfort, East London, Glamorgan, Glasgow Caledonian, Greenwich, Hertfordshire, Huddersfield, Kingston, Leeds Metropolitan, Lincoln, Liverpool John Moores, London Metropolitan, London South Bank, Manchester Metropolitan, Middlesex, Napier, Northumbria, Nottingham Trent, Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, Sheffield Hallam, Staffordshire, Sunderland, Teeside, Thames Valley, West of England, Westminster and Wolverhampton. Others were formed from colleges (particularly art or religious colleges) and institutes: Abertay Dundee, University of the Arts, Bath Spa, Bedfordshire, Bolton, Buckinghamshire New, Canterbury Christ, Chester, Chichester, Cumbria, Derby, Edge Hill, Gloucestershire, Glyndwr, Liverpool Hope, University of Wales - Newport, Northampton, Queen Margaret, Robert Gordon, Roehampton, Southampton Solent, Swansea Metropolitan, University of Wales Institute, West of Scotland, Winchester, Worcester and York St. John. From 1992 they could all award their own degrees whereas previously they had often awarded degrees monitored by neighbouring universities.

Post-1992 the new universities have had very varied experiences, some proving very successful, others, notably Thames Valley University and London Metropolitan University (previously North London Polytechnic) facing grave problems (it did as polytechnic anyway). People tend to forget that Kingston and Westminster universities were ever new universities whereas Queen Mary, University of London gets lumped in this category despite being around since the 1880s.

Aside from these designations, the universities have grouped themselves into organisations which have become more important than which category they have put themselves into. The two most prominent groupings are the Russell Group of 'research intensive universities' including parts of the University of London (marked here [L]): Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial [L], Kings College London [L], Leeds, Liverpool, London School of Economics [L], Manchester, Newcastle, University College London [L], Nottingham, Queen's University Belfast, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, University College London [L] and Warwick. There is also the 1994 Group which seems pretty similar in purpose ('to promote excellence in research and teaching') it also has ancients and parts of the University of London: Bath, Birkbeck, Durham, East Anglia, Essex, Exeter, Goldsmiths [L], Royal Holloway [L], Lancaster, Leicester, Loughborough, Queen Mary University of London [L], Reading, St. Andrews, School of Oriental and African Studies [L], Surrey, Sussex and York.

Now Aitkenhead whines that potential students are being mislead by the suggestion that all universities are the same. Thus, she feels that the 'very people who are being targeted by university access expansion are those with the least chance of knowing what they are getting'. This is incredibly patronising, especially as even Oxford and Cambridge have made efforts to expand their intake. The average 13-year old regularly access Wikipedia as do their parents and if I can find information about the different standings of universities, does she think that someone considering going to a university (let alone parents who will spend thousands sending their child to university) will not take just a few minutes to Google the institutions they are considering? Even if they do not do that, she seems oblivious to the discussion that goes on at the school gate or in the Years 12 and 13 common room. We are all savvy consumers and will spend even more effort looking at universities than we would buying a car, a house, an ipod or a holiday. Aitkenhead misses the fact that whilst we have moved from the elitist system last seen in the early 1990s when only 6% of 18-year olds went to university to a mass-delivery system in which over 40% go, the expansion has been minimal into the lower social classes, it has simply been among the middle classes who whereas in 1985 might have sent one of their three offspring to university now see all three going. To think that anyone from any social class goes to university without care is a false assumption. In the 1980s you wrote away for printed prospectuses nowadays you simply access the pdf copy, but the choosing has not got any less careful.

Aitkenhead feels that universities are presented as all the same, but that shows how poor a shopper she is. Of course every university presents it best side. No university is going to say that 'we are in run-down 1980s buildings'; 'you will be living out in run-down Victorian terrace that is badly maintained' though that is an experience across the university sector. Portraying the University of Oxford accurately you would have to say, 'many of the rooms are medieval, the floors slant and there is no disabled access'; 'the central library' is poorly lit and cramped; there are few computer points and every time you step out you have to tackle crowds of tourists'; try using the London School of Economics Library and finding even a desk to work and the ground floor is noisier than a railway station.

At all universities there is bad teaching and poor courses as well as good ones. Aitkenhead bemoans of the 22% drop-out rate and this shows her poor research. Has she made any effort to look back to the 1980s or 1960s? Even then some courses were losing 30-40% of their students. Some universities such as Bristol were renowned in the 1980s for setting first term exams so hard that 10% of the students were removed before Christmas. She entirely neglects the fact that with 40% of 18-year olds going to university many more with mental health and other challenges are now arriving at university and finding it difficult to continue.

The thing that Aitkenhead seems to feel are only the problems of post-1992 universities are more widespred than she thinks. First she acknowledges that some of these universities are doing well, such as Manchester Metropolitan, are doing very well, and she could easily add Middlesex, Oxford Brookes and Leeds Metropolitan. However, she neglects that many Russell Group and 1994 Group universities have problems too. Her reference to violence (and 'town-gown' violence dates back decades, even centuries) neglects the fact that many old and new universities share the same town, Leeds and Leeds Metropolitan; Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam; Oxford and Oxford Brookes have campuses within sight of each other; Winchester and Southampton Solent have sites within a few minutes' walk parts of Southampton. These are just ones I have driven passed personally. The students of the different institutions live in the same streets, shop at the same shops and socialise in the same pubs and clubs, so face the same risks from crime and violence. This is more about the issues facing our cities as a whole than particular universities.

Aitkenhead says '[i]f middle class sons were dealing with fights outside their halls, their parents would be up in arms', they do and they are. This complaint makes a number of errors. First, all universities have middle class students. There is are some which have more and some which have more working class students, but there is no strict segregation. Students go where the course they want is run and where they can afford to travel to/live. Increasingly students from all classes are not travelling so far from home to attend university. Second why does she imagine working class parents are more passive on behalf of their children than middle class parents? Her whole article has this fantasy of cow-like, forelock-tugging working class people, blinded by the wonder of getting a child to university to the extent that they make no complaint. Perhaps she just thinks they are not articulate enough to complain. Has she been to any school recently or even read any education articles? All schools and universities face challenges and demands from parents, often very vigorous ones, and again there is no distinction in class for this intervention. Surely Aitkenhead must have read the articles about how much more involved parents are in their children's education; universities now put on special events and produce publications for them, something they never did in the 1980s. People are up in arms about these issues. Aitkenhead: ave you never even bothered to access any parently discussion boards? Have you heard of researching an article? It consists of more than sitting in a pub listening to friends whine.

Aitkenhead's snobbery continues. She speaks of a student from a photography course facing £25,000 of debt. There are students from all sorts of courses and all sorts of university with such debt. I have been discussing the problems that that brings on this blog on and off for the past two years and Aitkenhead could have found references to it from her own newspaper amongst many others let alone from online and broadcast sources. In fact if you go to a more upper market university you could find yourself spending more. Students graduating from Oxford do not escape such debt. Of course for Aitkenhead that kind of debt is worth it '[i]f university was giving [students] ... the kind of social and cultural incubation I enjoyed'. Again she neglects the fact that this happens, but students are no longer part of an elite system so they mix with a wider range of people like themselves rather than gaining access to elite groupings. In the UK, getting access to so many of our professions is still about who you know rather than what you know. Even if you go to Oxford and Cambridge if you associate with the type of people you would have met at the school you came from then you are not going to get the leg-up that you would do if you came from Eton or Harrow schools or are now able to associate with such people. Added to this is British xenophobia which means they stay mixing with Britons being hostile to mixing with the increasing number of students from Beijing or Berlin, so actually cutting themselves off from the 'social and cultural incubation' that would help them not just get a job in the UK but across the world, but of course to Aitkenhead, that would be no benefit (and it seems many British students, no matter what their social class, share that view).

There is a huge difference between universities (and between different courses within each university) and no-one believes otherwise. These terribly naive people who Aitkenhead feels have been falsely sold a course that gives them no social or economic benefits are very small in number. Her suggestion that their children should work their way up through the ranks of some profession is incredibly dated. You do not even get to begin working your way up these days until you have the entrance ticket of a degree.

In adopting this snobbery, wanting her low-quality institutions relabelled, Aitkenhead misses the whole point about the restrictions on social mobility and progression in British society, the true impact of adopting a policy of mass higher education and the costs of such education to individuals (which seems to be being realised though not explicitly, surely 'non-repayable' funds are beginning to look like the grants of old). No university is going to say it is a poor place to study, it would be suicidal to do so. However, universities cannot isolate themselves from the problems facing the cities that they are located in. Consumers of all things, including education, are both knowledgeable and demanding. Information both official and unofficial about all universities, is easily available, there are a plethora of league tables which undermine any misselling that Aitkenhead believes is so prevalent.

The first part of her article goes on about students not paying attention to lectures and the fact that you can buy essays. Neither of these things has changed in 20-40 years, they are probably just more visible. The inattention of young people is a problem right across the years and society, it is not an aspect of attending any particular university. It stems from children knowing that adults are so hemmed in by regulation that they lack sanctions to demand attention. Conversely, any student wasting their time in a lecture or class is throwing away their (or more likely their parent's money). We hear a great deal about students demanding things for their fees, but effectively then fritter it away. However, we could be back at 1930s Oxford and seeing youth that was inattentive and frittering away their money and their gifts. For Aitkenhead it seems more offensive because these are ordinary people rather than an elite. Buying essays is nothing new either, it is just in the age of the internet it is more visible and easier,though conversely, using software that is available in all UK universities, far easier to detect. She neglects to point out how many students are thrown off courses (and in the case of subjects like Law, banned from working in the profession) for cheating or copying.

Aitkenhead says that the photography student will never get the job he wants. Of course many people never end up with the job that they want, no matter which university they attended. In fact the UK has always had this, in the 1980s, more managing directors of UK companies had History degrees than any other subject. Whilst there is an emphasis on 'employability skills' and courses for work, university is still about developing thinking, adaptable people who can turn their hand to many things. In one office job I had where there were a lot of musicians and writers working a colleague complained that it was 'the hall of lost dreams', I contested that saying the people were in good jobs which thus allowed them to pursue their musical and writing interests more fully than if they were trying to scrape by on them alone. You do not have to be on the road or in a garret all the time to perform in public or get a novel published. A good degree prepares people for work. Some people will get their dream job, some will not, but there are many other factors than simply the course you took. For example a student graduating from a course in 2009 will find it far harder to get any work, let alone their dream job than a student coming from the same course with the same grades would have done in 2008 or 2007.

What Aitkenhead effectively wants is a return to the elitist university system in which intellectual middle class students simply mix with intellectual middle class students on leafy campuses cut off from the world, without having to pay for anything and then get a job easily at the end of it. This was never the true pattern: anyone who has visited buildings of the University of Oxford one of the most elite and privileged of the UK universities will know that even they do not escape reality however hard they might fight it. This journalist missed an opportunity and instead simply banged out her ill-informed prejudices about universities and offers no suggestions for solutions. She bemoans (working class) people's ignorance, when those people do not exist. There might not be a working class consciousness, but people from all strata of British society are skilled, critical even aggressive consumers who pride themselves in not having the wool pulled over their eyes. She pities her imagined passive working class families' pride in small gains without noting that in the UK, a small gain in a generation is all that society permits us to get. I attended a good university and got a good degree but have never had a job that lasted more than four years and am certainly not my dream job. I am the first and last person in my family to go to university. The issue of the lack of social mobility that holds back so many graduates would have been far more worthy of Aitkenhead's attention. Saying that, any poorly-researched article like this one was, is probably a waste of time.

P.P. - 05/04/2009: I was stunned to read that Decca Aitkenhead has received an award for interview with Alastair Darling. I can only think it stemmed from her 'scoop' about the severity of the recession as in my mind she has never shown any particular journalistic ability and is very lazy in her research. I suppose one should not be surprised at a newspaper who actually employs Tristam Hunt to interview people, a man whose ego fills two-thirds of any article he is connected with.

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