Worlds of Education

Ivory tower and market, the walls around Universities

published 11 September 2018 updated 11 September 2018

By  Raewyn Connell

Who gets to university? Two hundred years ago, this question was easy to answer. It was young men of the privileged classes, especially those destined for learned professions such as Law or the Church. In colonial universities, for instance in India, this could include young men from local landowning and merchant families. The walls kept out peasants, the working classes, women, tribal people, and all but a trickle of men from the middle classes.

Now it is different – isn’t it? There are not a few thousand higher education students in the world, but as I mentioned in the first post, two hundred million. A dramatic change, for sure.

But when we look closely, there are still walls around universities, in the form of steep inequalities in access. National data from Egypt in 2013 showed that youth coming from the wealthiest 20% of families made up 55% of students in public universities and 65% in private universities. Gaps of that size are familiar around the world. In some countries they are more extreme.

Social class inequalities are one of the most persistent features of university systems. Scholarships and bursaries were intended to fix this, bringing in bright working-class students. This did happen: some good friends of mine came to university this way, on teachers’ college scholarships.

But these schemes have always been too small. They could not reverse the massive social-selection machines at work in education: streaming and testing in schools with their deep-seated cultural biases; family connections with higher education; the smoothing effects of money and the disruptive effects of poverty.

In the bright modern world created by global empires, inclusion and exclusion often followed a colour line. Racial inequalities remain disturbingly strong in the post-colonial world. In South Africa, for instance, the university participation rate in 2013 was 55% for white youth and 16% for black youth. Recent labour migration can also be reflected in sharp differences of access.

The university world of two hundred years ago was a man’s world – in practice and in principle. Only a limited number of women were literate, and very, very few had higher education. Most universities simply refused to grant degrees to women, and provided nowhere for female students to live. This has changed, and it is the greatest success story of struggle for social justice in education.

Women conducted this struggle by two strategies. One was to demand access to existing courses and qualifications alongside the men—Hence the North American expression ‘co-eds’ for women students. It was new universities such as the University of London that first accepted this change. The famous old universities like Oxford and Harvard resisted as long as they could.

The other strategy was to create new institutions, i.e. women’s colleges. This might seem simple, but it was controversial. In 1884 the great Gilbert & Sullivan devoted a whole opera to satirising an imaginary women’s university. The opera was called Princess Ida, or, Castle Adamant; in the finale, the heroine gives up the ridiculous idea of education, sings a love duet and gets married. Real women proved to be tougher. In a number of countries, including Australia, women are now a clear majority of all students entering university.

Universities are not just a screen on which society’s injustices are projected.  Universities have been active in making exclusions and inequalities. Resistance to co-education was one example. Many universities had, and some still have, religious tests for entry: you have to belong to an approved faith. Many universities have had, openly or covertly, racial exclusions. This is now frowned on – but it is surprising how few indigenous people or stigmatised minorities enter elite universities even today.

In the neoliberal era, class exclusions take new forms. No-one any more would dream of selecting students on the basis of an upper-class accent. But now that both public and private universities in most countries depend heavily on fees, there is a silent selection on the basis of credit-worthiness.

The neoliberal doctrine of market competition defines universities as independent firms. The result is an enormous hierarchy among universities and colleges themselves. This is what the infamous global “League Tables” are about. In practice, the rankings map collective wealth and class privilege more than anything else.

All the walls and inequalities have been challenged. Successive women’s movements challenged gender exclusion, with great effects. The mass student movement in Chile in 2011 challenged class privileges in a higher education system that had been made more unequal by privatisation and commodification. The recent ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Fees Must Fall’ movements in South Africa challenged racial inequality and the effects of marketization too.

Higher education is both a commercial industry and a public service. Social injustices suit the industry but are destructive for the public service. The struggle to abolish them will continue.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.