Why David Willetts is not a ‘latent snob’

It is difficult not to be cynical about the Universities Minister’s recent exhortation to institutions to address the underrepresentation of white working-class boys in higher education. It may have coincided with the release of a depressing downturn in applications in the 2013 UCAS cycle, but the timing was surely no coincidence as BIS looked to deflect attention from another indication of the unfolding tragedy befalling English HE post-Browne. Timing aside though, David Willetts has a point: white working-class boys are one of the most under-represented groups among undergraduate entrants and his intervention prompted some very interesting responses. Conor Ryan of the Sutton Trust gave a summary of the research evidence in his blog and pointed out that only half as many boys as girls apply to Sutton Trust summer schools. Patrick McGhee, VC of the University of East London, outlined seven practical steps which would help improve working-class boys’ higher education participation (for all ethnic groups). I should declare an interest here – I was a white working-class boy. In case you are now thinking “well-he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he?” I also appreciated Janet Beer’s corrective which counselled of the danger in focussing on any one group (and particularly her point that women are disadvantaged in progressing to higher degrees – another topic for a future blog post).

However, for me the most interesting and thought-provoking response came from an MP I’d never heard of before: Brian Binley, vice-chair of the BIS Select Committee and the Conservative member for Northampton South. His blog on the subject is largely party-political invective against New Labour higher education policy and manages to contradict itself within the space of a paragraph. However there are two interesting things about it: it accuses Willetts of peddling an “elitist authoritarian fantasy”; and complains about a broader educational snobbery (of which Willetts is, by implication, guilty). For instance:

what these learned people need to remember is simple: there is nothing wrong with not having a degree, or opting for vocational training in place of university post-nominal distinctions

and elsewhere:

my contemporaries and I didn’t need a worthy professor shedding tears that we were able to make our way in the world without his impressive post-nominal accoutrements.

On the face of it, standard British anti-intellectual fare plus the University-of-Life trope which anyone with a degree and an aged uncle has heard at some point before. The accusation of snobbery is misplaced: if Willetts was not discussing widening participation in any way or suggesting that university is ‘not for the likes of’ some people, that would be snobbery.

But behind Binley’s complaint is a more profound point and one which my students return to again and again in discussing educational and social change and the huge rise in university enrolments over the last few decades. In the 21st century, educational qualifications have come to monopolise the path to success. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare and usually limited to particular fields – football, the odd businessperson, some of the entertainment industry. To ‘get on’ in most other areas basic educational qualifications are essential and higher education increasingly important. Young people are subject to what Alison Wolf calls “the tyranny of numbers” – not going to university is, despite the exorbitant cost, an unpalatable option. Some of those who don’t go ‘make it’, but most don’t. Many of those who do go don’t want to and/or don’t make it, but on the whole the odds are stacked in favour of the educated. In particular, making it to Westminster as an MP is increasingly a graduate’s game and so Brian Binley’s trajectory is likely to be far less common in the future.

We might have different views on whether this is a good thing or not and regret the shrivelling of non-university routes to success, with all that entails for the character of public life. That it is happening, and happening the world over though is surely a matter of fact rather than opinion. The sociologist David P. Baker has argued that modern society is a schooled society – that institutionalised education was not only a catalyst for societal transformation but that schooling (and higher education) has come to characterise the form of society we now inhabit. Generalised academic intelligence, for better or worse, has become a central measure of worth in a way analogous to the place of military prowess in medieval feudalism. It’s a polemical view, but one which I think has considerable merit. In the light of this pervasive ‘educationalisation’ of society then, the call to increase the participation of white working-class boys in higher education is not snobbery, but enlightened realpolitik.



Filed under Higher education policy, Schooled society, UK, Widening participation

3 responses to “Why David Willetts is not a ‘latent snob’

  1. Shortly after his blog about David Willetts appeared, Brian Binley announced that he has been diagnosed with cancer. I wish him well.

  2. Reblogged this on thelearningprofessor and commented:
    The issue of gender in higher education is always controversial. Add social class to the mix, and throw in a gender perspective that focuses on males, and you can guarantee to generate heat, but not necessarily light. I liked this thoughtful and careful approach, at least as a way of opening up the issues for debate.

  3. I find it worrying that Willetts is racialising what is fundamentally a question of class. As Janet Beer points out, BME students are also underachieving.

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