Higher Education

Access anxiety driven by ‘classism’

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Claims that widening access to university will damage academic standards come from fear among the 'haves' over 'the intrusion of the have-nots', according to the vice-chancellor of Newcastle University. Chris Brink, who as vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University in South Africa increased black student entry by more than half, has identified common fears surrounding access in both countries.

In a speech to be delivered at a conference on equality in higher education on 5th November, he will argue that anxieties about falling standards, damage to reputations and 'social engineering' associated with widening access may be manifestations of 'the fear of the haves for the intrusion of the have-nots.' Professor Brink will compare British 'classism' with racism in that it perceives the 'lower classes' as lesser. A recent BMJ editorial questioning a programme run by King's College London to help disadvantaged students to study medicine noted: 'UK medical students tend to come from higher socioeconomic classes, perhaps not surprisingly, as social class correlates with intellectual ability.' In his speech, Professor Brink will argue that A-level results – or IQ scores – must not be equated with merit without consideration of context. 'To say that school-leavers whose parents could buy their way into good schools are of higher merit than school-leavers who struggled in adverse circumstances, on the sole evidence of their respective school-leaving results, seems a narrow definition of the word 'merit',' the vice-chancellor will argue.

However, Professor Brink intends to argue strongly against government-enforced measures on equality. When taking 'corrective action' to increase black participation in Stellenbosch, he was worried that the Government would impose equality measures.

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