Changing England’s ‘Downton Abbey’ View of Higher Education

The English have a difficult time shaking a “Downton Abbey” view of class — and higher education, says Nigel Thrift. Pictured here is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, England, where the popular TV show is filmed.

All higher-education systems have their pros and cons. In previous posts, I have mentioned things that make me nervous about higher education in the United States, including legacy admissions and how American universities have embraced market-oriented thinking.

But there are of course good aspects, too, aspects that other systems could learn from. In England, universities tend to be stuck in a rut occasioned by the Downton Abbey class—or should I say, caste—habits, which often still pertain when it comes to higher education. The result is that every university tends to be placed in a hierarchy. Oxford and Cambridge are at the “top.” The rest of the Russell Group, a British association of leading research universities, follows, with varying orders that include some universities that are “smarter” to attend than others. And so on down to the nominal “bottom.” The result is that, in every British political party, the issue of access to universities often tends to be defined solely in terms of being able to make room for students from lower-class backgrounds in the top universities.

As the English system has become larger and more diverse, and as the world has become increasingly locked into a competition to maximize talent, this hierarchy looks increasingly fantastical and self-defeating, but hundreds of years of particular pathways of privilege have locked that hierarchy into many students’ and parents’ minds like the cultural equivalent of DNA.

That is a pity. It is by no means clear that this is an appropriate system for the 21st century. It squanders talent that can ill afford to be lost. And this is where the United States comes in. Whatever failings the American higher-education system may have, it is large enough and diverse enough to accommodate a much greater degree of student choice and customization. This is not to say that the system has no hierarchy: the Ivy League lives and breathes as a real league. I overheard someone on a plane recently complaining that an acquaintance always felt it necessary to make his class ring as visible as possible by tapping it on the table during meetings. The “brass rat,” as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ring is known, was felt to be owned by a real rat. (British students who study in the United States—more than 9,000 a year now—exhibit some of this same habit of mind. Their motivations tends to be couched in terms of getting into Harvard or Yale or Princeton).

But the American system, precisely because it is so large and diverse, has much less snobbery. It therefore enables more students to find a better educational fit. This was brought home to me recently by seeing two of my American colleagues searching out institutions for their children. Their search process didn’t take in just the Ivy League. Indeed, they were concerned to find an institution that would really bring out their children’s talents. They had their “reaches,” but they were more concerned with an appropriate institution, an institution which would nurture their children. For example, in engineering, that might be an MIT or a large state institution, or it might be a small scientifically inclined liberal-arts college like Harvey Mudd or Pomona, in California, or a specialist engineering institution like the Frank W. Olin College of Engineering, in Massachusetts.

This attitude is something that the current British government is now starting to build in England, partly by accident and partly by design. (Other parts of Britain, like Scotland, have always had a different, more egalitarian outlook). So the government is granting more small institutions university status. It is allowing a limited number of small private institutions to be granted similar status. And it is, in effect, allowing parts of the continuing-education sector (what is known in Britain as “further education,” and is somewhat similar to community colleges) to make shift as universities. There are inevitable moments of tension in expanding choice. For example, some on the political left are adamantly opposed to any private-sector involvement in higher education just as some on the right are equally adamantly in favor. But the current government’s policy of increasing the number of university and universitylike institutions may, over time at least, start to break down that peculiarly English obsession with caste in higher education and, to that extent, I think it should be welcomed.

[Creative Commons Wikimedia image by Richard Munckton]

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