Why Class-Based Expectations of Education Need to be Undone

24 Aug

Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today’s Guardian that:

Those from the upper- and middle-classes who go to Oxbridge will do fine – as they were always going to do. But Blair’s dream of a working-class kid getting a degree that would catapult him or her up the social ladder has not come off. Instead, they’ll probably end up doing similar work to their school-leaver parents – only with a debilitatingly large debt around their necks…

the reason the Great Degree Scramble has not paid off in better jobs is because Labour did not try to provide them. That would have required nurturing new businesses and raising conditions for the most awful jobs – the sort of thing Blair and his party emphatically did not do…

Up until the mid-90s, Switzerland – one of the richest and most industrialised nations in the world – sent only 10-15% of students off to get a degree. But it made sure the others had apprenticeships with actual businesses and vocational training. There must, surely, be a lesson in that.

Chakrabortty is absolutely right to argue that Labour failed to do enough to improve working conditions or to provide enough in the way of vocational training. They emphasised the virtues of a university education without doing enough to say why work-based training was worthwhile. But Labour’s aims of increasing working class access to university were admirable despite their questionable means (top-up fees) of achieving those aims.

Critics of the explosion in university applications rarely appear to expect anyone other than the working classes to be the ones who should stop going to university. Chakrabortty follows this trend when he unquestioningly contrasts the failure of the working class students to profit from their university education with the continuing ability of upper- and middle- class graduates to enter highly-paid or highly-valued work. He seems to write with an underlying assumption that it’s normal and right for middle- and upper- class A-Level students to go to university and for working-class students to move into vocational training.

It may very well be that Britain has too many graduates but it’s a form of class discrimination to assume that automatically means there are too many working-class university students. So yes, Chakrabortty is right to deplore the lack of investment in and promotion of vocational training. But there’s also an unfortunate presumption in his writing that middle- and upper- class students are best suited to a university education and are the only students who will necessarily be rewarded themselves and who will benefit the economy after graduation.

Chakrabortty’s article has been given the headline ‘The great university con: why giving degrees out willy-nilly doesn’t actually help the economy.’ These aren’t his words but when read together with the article it does presuppose that degrees would have to be given out ‘willy-nilly’ for working-class students to succeed at university. It also wrongly takes it as a general truth that having lots of specifically working-class graduates harms the economy. It might be more productive for critics of the high numbers of students to consider why vocational training is marked as more suitable for working-class students than students of other classes.

One way of overcoming the current situation would be to try to undo middle- and upper- class perceptions of post-GCSE/A-Level vocational training as inferior to and less worthwhile than a degree — a perception which I openly admit I had at school. Combined with a strategy of ensuring working-class access to all educational institutions, this would allow Britain to have economically-advantageous numbers of university- and vocationally- trained workers. Achieving this realignment in class-based educational expectations requires careers advisors and teachers as well as the media and government to give vocational training the same space as degrees within their discourses and rhetoric.

The answer to having too many graduates isn’t to dissuade working-class students from going to university but to invest in and promote vocational training to a much greater extent than has been done so previously. Vocational training needs to be widely seen as being just as valuable and valued as degrees. It’s also important to emphasise to students from all classes  — and indeed to society in general — that university isn’t the only route to a good career. While vocational training is undervalued by politicians, the media and careers services and is relegated beneath degrees in their rhetoric such promotion of vocational training  will be unlikely to find a wide and ready audience however.

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