Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Idea of a University

There have been some articles in the past few days about how the elite Russell group of UK universities are still a very difficult place for the more disadvantaged in society to access. http://bbc.in/1bMtdS8   As someone who comes from a poor background and works in a Russell group university I have been prompted to write this blog based on my own journey to my current career.

Some of the more erudite among you will realise that the title of this post is derived from a talk/ lecture, paper by that noted Catholic academic theologian Cardinal John Newman. There are I believe some fantastic ideas expounded in that series but I am no Cardinal Newman and what I wanted to do here is just lay out and discuss some of my own thoughts and ideas about the University system in the UK at the moment. Why I wanted to write this piece is as I go about my day to day activities and come in to contact with various people I find that there are some strange ideas out there about the University sector is and what Universities actually do.

Generally in the UK it is said that the Universities have three missions. Teaching, research and the mysterious third mission.  Exactly what this third mission is not as easy to describe as the relatively straight forward first two but it has something to do with the involvement of universities with society. Sometimes the terms outreach and engagement are used in relation to this sort of activity. To illustrate this with my own working load model as I work at a research institute most of my work involves research but occasionally I do teach mainly as a guest lecturer. In addition, almost on a voluntary basis, I work with a number of community groups /  agencies and charities in a mainly advisory capacity and I see that as an aspect of fulfilling my third mission activity.

In relation to the wider UK University sector the situation is not that straight forward.  Although over the past thirty years we have seen a massive increase in the amount of people accessing HE at the same time it has to be said that not all Universities have been created equal. For instance back in the 1970s -80s you had Universities and Polytechnics and then in 1992 under John Major’s Government  many of the Polytechnics and Higher Education colleges became “New Universities”.  However, simply allowing these institutions to have the same name does not mean that they are the same type of institution.  Over these past twenty years institutions have developed in to at times being teaching Universities or research Universities. For example in 1994 the Russell Group of the top 20+ research universities was formed.  These Russell group Universities receive approximately three quarters of all research grants in the UK.

Therefore, even with this exponential growth the sector is far from a level playing field. The Universities who do not get so much research funding are also therefore more dependent on their income on student fees so recruitment, retention and marketing is a key concern for them.  In that period of time, between 1993 and 2010 in the UK the percentage of people with a University degree has gone from 12% to 25% . Of course this has increased competition between graduates for posts and again unsurprisingly all degrees are not equal.  I was recently talking to a recruiter for a London based technology company who told me that they are so overwhelmed for applications for graduate level jobs that their first sifting process for reducing the number of applications they consider is taking out all the applications that do not have a 2.i or a First class degree from a Russell group University!!!  Now that does strike me at somewhat harsh but I suppose that is just the reality of the sector response to market forces.  While it is still the case that generally if you have a degree  you will have a higher salary, the market is very competitive out there these days and it is not just having a degree but what degree you have.

The reason that I am recounting these changes in the higher education system over the past twenty years is with this expansion of the sector the market is becoming increasingly difficult to understand and as is always seems to be the case those who know how to play it are doing better under the system.  When I went to University in my late 30s as a mature student over ten years ago now( how that came about should be another posting) I didn’t understand these differences between universities and the main reason that I went to the one that I did, which was a “good” university but not one that was considered among the top flight, was simply that it was on my doorstep. Now that the market has increased with a lot more University places on offer and the possibility of graduates  coming out with debts of £27,000 it is those with a better knowledge of how the system works who can most benefit from it, as it always has been. 

As is always the case the rich and well connected know the system and know how to play it.  You only have to look at senior figures in the government, business, judiciary and academia and their backgrounds to realise that.  If the UK were in fact in anyway a meritocracy would we have so many Eton and the like old boys (and it is mainly boys) in positions of power?  The working classes account for some 37% of the UK population while university recruitment from the working classes is 32.5%. That throughout the whole sector while for Oxford and Cambridge it is not much over 10%. Just in general within the Russell group recruitment from the working class (whatever that means in this day and age of under and unemployment) is below average.    

The exclusion of the poor from the higher education sector is further compounded when you realise that within this categorisation of the working classes the long term unemployed are not counted. So the figures seem to indicate that for the poorer that are going to University they are not reaching the so called “elite” institutions with the corresponding increased opportunity for a future career.

So who is to blame for this situation? Is it the Russell group, is it the schools, Is it the universities in general, is it the government.  Is it the poor because of their lack of aspiration and unwillingness to challenge the system?  My own view on this is to quote the old sociologist joke. (And goodness knows I am an old sociologistL)

Q: How many sociologists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There’s nothing wrong with the light bulb it is the whole system which is at fault. :-)  


  1. Where do you think the OU stands in all this Doc?

  2. The OU is a fantastic institution which is a remnant of the old Labour movement and representative of the long working class tradition of autodidacticism. It has a strong academic reputation but at the same time it is not a member of the Russell Group. So it offers an opportunity for those from a non traditional background to yet again knock on the door of academia but the barriers to reaching the "glittering prizes" are still just as real.