Voices: Forcing universities like Sheffield Hallam to axe courses is an attack on working class students

·4 min read
Graduate destination also depends on far more than just achievement at university (Getty Images)
Graduate destination also depends on far more than just achievement at university (Getty Images)

For a government that claims social mobility is at the heart of its plans for levelling up the country, these Conservatives have got – even by their own standards – a remarkably cack-handed approach to the problem.

First, the government has allowed the Social Mobility Commission to move so far from its initial remit, focusing on child poverty, that advisors with decades-long careers in understanding how social mobility works have walked away, stating it is no longer interested in the evidence base they can provide. Then it appointed a social mobility tsar, Katherine Birbalsingh, whose views on what social mobility looks like are so unambitious that her recent speech setting out the government’s push for a more equal society was met with derision, even anger.

And this week, we’re seeing the troubling consequences for mobility of the way the government thinks about, and funds, university education.

Sheffield Hallam University is closing its undergraduate degree in English Literature because it falls foul of a new “quality” threshold, which stipulates that 60 per cent of students who complete the course should enter further study or “professional employment” after graduation. No jobs will be axed in the move, but it is a great loss, nevertheless.

Sheffield Hallam is what is known as a “post-1992” university, a former polytechnic that converted to full university status and expanded its offering in the late 1990s. These institutions were heavily invested in during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Tony Blair’s first two governments set about rapidly expanding access to higher education, chasing a target of putting 50 per cent of young people through university or level four training.

What used to be primary vocational training schools are now fully fledged research institutions with specialism and excellences, but they also offer a broad range of courses across the curriculum for students from a very diverse background. Now, many of these institutions fear their funding will be cut after the government’s Office for Students announced a “crackdown” on what it deems to be poor quality courses earlier this year. Courses are closing, and that means opportunities for young people from less privileged backgrounds are disappearing too.

Of course, it makes sense for every university to play to its unique strengths, but the metric being used to judge the quality of courses – graduate destination – does a particularly bad job of assessing what value a course has. How can we say a course is not good enough because a graduate can’t find a graduate job when our economy is highly skewed towards lower skilled roles, and there is no industrial strategy in place to address the gap between a rising number of aspirational graduates and a declining number of associated jobs?

The gap between academic achievement and post-university destination is even more strained in cities such as Sheffield, which have a high number of students (the university boasts two excellent institutions) but lose much of that potential from the local economy, because there aren’t the jobs to keep graduates there long term.

Graduate destination also depends on far more than just achievement at university. It’s a class signifier too. How much simpler it is to secure a “professional” job if you have graduate parents and other contacts already working in similar professional environments. How much easier it is to decide to go on to study for a masters or PhD if you don’t have to think too hard about how you’ll fund those extra years out of the workforce.

Can we be sure that an English Literature degree from, say, Durham is any better at preparing a young person for the world of work? Or is it just that, considering the highly upper middle class intake of Durham (between 35 and 40 per cent of each year’s cohort come from private schools, which educate just 7 per cent of school age children in Britain) they had better access to those opportunities whatever they studied – and whether they went to university or not.

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This isn’t just an attack on courses and universities that, unashamedly, widen access to tertiary education, but on the right to an education as a whole. What is being policed is not quality but opportunity. The result is that, while middle and upper-class school leavers have the luxury of being able to choose whatever subject sparks their imagination for three years, those who may be the first in their family to attend university – overwhelmingly likely to attend a post-1992 institution – must be limited to those deemed to have a practical function in preparing them for work.

I find this depressing to the point of becoming grotesque. Education cannot have one purpose for the rich and another for the poor.

Dan Hicks, professor of archaeology at the University of Oxford, got the mood right this week when he tweeted: “Then they came for the arts and humanities in post-92 universities / But I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t studying or teaching arts and humanities at a post-92 university.”

He understands that this is a dangerous drip-drip-drip that could lead to the paring back of university education and academia too. It can’t be left only to the academics that remain to fight for it.