A Resounding No for Are Elite Universities Meritocratic?

On Tuesday 8th of July 2014, the BSA Bourdieu Study Group hosted an event at Cardiff University on inequalities and reproduction in higher education (HE). The event was entitled ‘Are Elite Universities Meritocratic?’ – yes, we know it’s an oxymoron. The event brought together two highly regarded scholars in the field who delivered keynote talks – Professor Diane Reay and Dr Vikki Boliver – as well as an expert panel to debate ‘fair’ access in HE consisting of; Professor David James (Cardiff University), Professor Harriet Bradley (University of West of England) and Mr Richard Smith (Higher Education Funding Council for England – HEFCE).





Dr Vikki Boliver’s keynote talk on ‘meritocracy’ and ‘fairness’ in elite university admissions debunked the rhetoric that school attainment is the biggest barrier for elite university entry for ethnic minority applicants, arguing that students from ethnic minority backgrounds with good grades are still less likely to receive offers. Often lower rate of ethnic minority students at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities is ‘blamed’ on them typically clustering in certain subjects areas, yet Oxford won’t release any analysis on this. One of the problems, Boliver argued, is that admission in subjects/areas with high concentration of black and minority ethnicity (BME) candidates are established on the proportional ‘representativeness’ of those groups in wider society. Such a pursuing of ‘representativeness’ is at the cost of equal treatment/fairness at an aggregate level rather than an individual one. Oversubscription on certain degree courses does not completely explain why these applicants have lower offer rates. Boliver talked about her frustration at admission data not being openly available. In 2013, UCAS started to deny data to all independent third parties. ‘They must open up their data to scrutiny and proper analysis’, argues Boliver.




Admission selectors may also recruit in their own image or be influenced by unconscious bias. Coincidentally, an article Boliver wrote for the Guardian, ‘Why do Elite Universities Admit so Few Ethnic Minority Applicants’, was published on the day of the event. It revealed that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge recently published figures showing that British ethnic minorities are significantly less likely than their white British peers to be offered places, with Russell Group universities making offers to 55% of white applicants but 23% of black ones. Boliver states that this worrying ‘under-representation of British ethnic minority students at elite UK universities is being investigated as part of an all-party parliamentary inquiry led by David Lammy MP’.


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Professor Diane Reay’s keynote talk, ‘Elite universities and their centrality in the reproduction of educational inequalities’, drew on Bourdieu’s work; The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power and Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Quoting Bourdieu on the ‘triumphant ignorance’ of elites was well received by the audience.


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Reay argued that there is too much sameness and not enough difference at elite universities, compounding inequalities in social class reproduction and institutional racism. Oxbridge is the equivalent of a finishing school for the privately educated. The audience were shown shocking quotes by Oxbridge admission tutors illustrating the terrible prejudices at play. They were also told that in the same year only 50 pupils entitled to free-school-meals (FSMs) across the entire UK were admitted to Oxbridge while 60 pupils from Eton were admitted. Reay argues that ‘positive discrimination is at play in Oxbridge. It works to help elite students gain further advantage.’ Even when working-class students manage to get a place at Oxbridge, they struggle to access financial hardship bursaries. Only 30% of Cambridge bursary allowance is allocated. The bursaries at the richest exclusive colleges go undistributed as they have very small or no intake of poorer students. Reay told of how Cambridge has an estimated £76,000 per head per year compared to Liverpool Hope University which has £7, 500 per head per year. In addition, working-class students at Oxbridge have to deal with higher levels of intellectual anxiety as well as the unease of what to do after their degree, while the privileged students often talked of ‘backup plans’ involving the nepotistic safety net of wide and powerful networks.


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During the panel discussion, Professor Harriet Bradley reflected on the habitual symbolic violence operating in HE and the sense of superiority inflicted by the privileged on the working-class. Privately educated students often have the verbal confidence that silences working-class students. Comparing social mobility to previous years, Bradley argued that ‘we are seeing a fossilisation of the class structure and the re-emergence of a narrative from the working-classes that “university is not for the likes of us”. The concept of meritocracy is a sham that needs to be exposed. What’s worse, adds Bradley, is that universities that were once the centre of critique are in decay, as the role of the universities now is seemingly to maintain the status quo. Her hope is to foster a new generation of critical thinking radicals.



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Professor David James applied a Bourdieusian framework to the issue, stressing the importance of using the concept of capital as relational and convertible: ‘We need to understand where and when capital is gained and the misrecognition that functions to manufacture inequalities in education.’ James also made the case that policies such as ‘widening participation’ exacerbates hierarchies and the language of ‘outreach’/‘hard-to-reach’/‘reaching-out’ is a discursive construction of the problem. He suggested affirmative action is a way to make entry to elite universities fairer. From the floor, Dr Richard Waller reasoned that if elite universities are so confident in their own superiority then they should accept ‘lower’ performing students. Richard Smith from HEFCE said he felt sorry for Oxbridge, as it is regularly used as the ‘whipping-boy’ in the debate on fair access at Britain’s ‘top’ universities.


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Jessie Abrahams, BSA Bourdieu Study Group co-convenor, spoke of how she had been inspired to organise the event after a discussion on the study group’s Facebook page when an article was published in Times Higher Education – ‘Oxford students deny role of class in elite admissions’, which drew on research conducted by Professor Natasha Kumar Warikoo and Dr Christina Fuhr. The research found that undergraduates ‘reproduce social inequality by asserting that they won their place at Oxford on “merit” alone.’ Furthermore, despite the students’ awareness that many British young people do not have access to educational experiences that would make Oxbridge an attainable goal, they would not support changes for more equitable admission procedures across class and/or ‘racial’/ethnic lines. Jessie spoke about how the event has given the opportunity to explore the argument often used in defence of Oxbridge admissions that structural inequalities are the ‘real’ cause of disadvantage of entry to elite institutions. No one is denying this, but it still wouldn’t explain why those applicants from working-class and ethnicity minority backgrounds who do manage to get the same grades as privately educated pupils still have lower offer rates. On the question of whether elite universities are meritocratic, it was a resounding no.

The day finished with a wine reception funded by Cardiff School of Social Science. As per usual the Bourdieu Study Group had inclusive after event dinner.


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4 thoughts on “A Resounding No for Are Elite Universities Meritocratic?

  1. annikacoughlin July 11, 2014 at 11:53 am Reply

    Thanks for this summary of the day. Really useful as I could not attend. Thanks.

  2. srawolle July 12, 2014 at 4:15 am Reply

    Reblogged this on TASA Sociology of Education and commented:
    Timely discussions about HE…

  3. D Maybe July 12, 2014 at 3:47 pm Reply

    Open up grammar schools in deprived areas and areas of high ethnic minority and watch the rates soar…

    It always seems to be the unmentioned elephant in the room at such events

  4. […] years, including events on the use of Bourdieu in ethnicity and migration studies, urban studies, education, social class, social theory, gender, Bourdieu as a public sociologist and special events for […]

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