What are elite universities for?

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A perennial question in higher education is whether elite institutions like Oxford and Cambridge are doing enough to recruit people from outside the traditional pool of white private-school kids. Every year we have the same conversation, and reach the same conclusion: probably not. What I didn’t realise until recently was that this debate assumes something very specific about the role of the top universities. It assumes that the job of these institutions, the ones with the most resources and (supposedly) the best academics, is to find and train the most talented students.

This as an assumption I’d never questioned. In order to question it, I’d have to have thought about it specifically – and I never had. Then I read this off-hand post by Mathew Yglesias at Slate. In it he casually upends the idea of what a higher education system should be for. The main analogy he draws is with Olympic athletes. If you’re a country building a team to win Olympic medals, then it makes sense to pour all your resources into finding and training the best of the best. This means a few incredibly well-resourced institutions that are extremely selective in who they accept. It doesn’t matter what happens to the majority who don’t get in – you are only interested in people who are capable of beating the best in the world.

Our education system doesn’t look quite like this, but it’s not that far off. If you think of all the higher education ‘resources’ in the country (money, teacher talent and knowledge, industry connections, and so on) as one big pot, then a large proportion of this pot goes to a few elite universities (the aforementioned Oxford and Cambridge, but also Russell Group universities like LSE and UCL). If you think that higher education should be like picking an Olympic team, then this is fine – we should be throwing all our resources at nurturing the best of the best. But if you think that the purpose of university education should be to deliver a generally better educated populace, then this is completely arse-backwards. We are allocating the best teachers and the most money to the people who, by definition, need the least help. The people who would have the most to gain from well-funded, well-staffed institutions aren’t invited to the party.

You might think that one benefit of the current ‘Olympic’ model of higher education is that we do find and nurture the ‘super-talents’ – the inventors, scientists, or businessmen who end up making a huge difference to the society or the economy. But the truth is that most people who attend even the most elite schools will end up getting ‘normal’ jobs. Their Oxbridge experience may have pushed up their income prospects by a few thousand pounds a year, but that same quality of education would have been absolutely life-changing for someone starting from a lower level of knowledge or ability. When we’re thinking about a national system, these are the millions we should be worrying about. Not the few dozen ‘super-talents’, who, let’s face it, can probably look after themselves.

Before everyone piles into this radical socialist utopia, I should be clear that this is just my gut reaction from reading Yglesias’s article. I haven’t researched this, thought about realistic reforms, or calculated the likely economic impact. But I think it’s an interesting argument that merits consideration. I’d like to see what other people think.

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About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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2 Responses to What are elite universities for?

  1. jaynel62 says:

    I find it hard to disagree with

  2. Freddie Lewis says:

    Interestingly, at least one Russell Group university says its admissions process aims to select people who will be most able to benefit from the education it offers. It’s entirely unclear that they’ve thought about what this actually means. (For instance, it surely isn’t the same as ‘those most likely to get a first’, yet that’s what the process in fact seems designed to identify.)

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