Martin Myers and Kalwant Bhopal
Despite the scale of the impact of Covid-19 in all areas of social life and across the globe; perhaps the single most striking observation is that so little of the structures of social life have changed. In the UK a catalogue of social injustices attributable to the virus in essence sounds a lot like the catalogue of social injustices that shaped countless lives and deaths prior to the current crisis. The poor suffer worse than the affluent; ethnic minorities are at greater risk than White people; the old are less valued than the young. In this respect it demonstrates little foresight to suggest the post-pandemic university will be founded on a range of pre-existing inequalities that mirror the institutional inequalities of the past. It would be safe to assume the management board of the post-pandemic university is planning to provide a comfortable space for White middle-class children leaving school to be taught by predominantly White middle-class academics occupying the most secure and prestigious roles of the White university.
Between April and July of this year, (after lockdown in the UK and after the cancellation of A Level examinations but before the announcement of A Level results), we conducted research with A Level students asking their views about the cancellation of their exams. In total 583 A Level students, (most of whom held ambitions to start university in September), responded to a survey questionnaire and these were followed up with 53 Skype interviews. A number of striking findings emerged which in some respects point to students adopting some of the attributes of the ‘student as consumer’. However, whereas the ethos behind the marketisation of HE might assume they become more savvy consumers exercising choice about the ‘university offer’ or ‘university experience’ in the educational marketplace; the students we spoke to tended to identify more significant structural flaws within their educational opportunities. Rather than identifying ‘value’ defined in consumer terms, (e.g. ‘good value’ or ’better value’ of degrees), their engagement in the HE market led to many students feeling they were confronted by a market that was morally corrupt rather than economically free.
Key findings from the research included:
- Students were very well-informed about the changes to the A Level examination assessment and the impact structural inequalities were likely to have on their assessed grades.
- White students were consistently more satisfied with the measures put in place by their schools to address the cancellation of exams.
- More affluent students felt more confident about the measures put in place to assess their grades.
- Students at Independent fee-paying schools felt more comfortable with their school’s ability to manage the examination process.
- Students (regardless of ethnicity, socio-economic status or type of school attended) identified patterns of unfairness that would affect the examination process.
These findings pre-dated the widely reported fiasco of A Level results day and the consequent government U-turn on grades. The inherent unfairness and problematic nature of how grades would be awarded were widely foreseen by students including inequalities related to ethnicity/race, affluence and type of school. Furthermore these issues were widely understood and described by all pupils e.g. a White, middle-class pupil attending a fee-paying school explaining how the ‘system’ would favour his own future over poorer non-White pupils at state schools.
This awareness of inequalities within higher education and schools hints at an imminent collision of interest between post-pandemic universities busily designing themselves as spaces in which pre-existing inequalities are allowed to flourish; but, at the same time, post-pandemic students emerging with greater knowledge of structural inequalities and a consequent potential to challenge institutional inequality. The promotion of students as consumers has fostered stability for universities by positioning students as more docile and less likely to challenge the status quo; they are potentially rendered ‘powerless’ because of their investment (debt) in the university . With some irony, this has led to many pupils becoming ‘better informed’, particularly in the context of the pandemic and the last minute scramble to adapt the restrictions of lockdown to examinations; many students appear to have adopted the instincts of consumers to investigate for themselves whether or not they are being offered ‘good value’ but quickly identified ‘value’ in their terms differs from the standard markers of ‘value’ offered by the free market.
Whilst universities and policy-makers have identified longstanding institutional inequalities; policy and initiatives addressing such inequalities (particularly race and class) have had limited impact. Often policy designed to address inequalities, is itself reconfigured in practice to reproduce existing patterns of disadvantage. In the competition to attract greater numbers of non-traditional students, institutional diversity is widely promoted as a commonplace feature of university branding and advertising. In effect universities place greater emphasis on marketing diversity rather than addressing real inequalities and whilst this has been challenged by small bodies of students, generally institutional change has been slow and mirrored the interests of the traditional university. This might change if the post-pandemic version of the student consumer is increasingly aware that education (schools and HE) uniformly benefit the reproduction of ethnic and class inequalities. By the 1970s, the tri-partite system was increasingly identified by parents as institutionally biased towards a small section of class interests which eventually culminated in a groundswell of public opinion for the abolition of grammar schools. In 2020 it maybe that students are now the key players rather than parents to confront inequalities. Defined as consumers and burdened by debt their ‘consumer choices’ maybe driven less by the anticipated ‘offer’ of ranks of similar universities and increasingly by an identification that structural inequalities offer the ‘worst value’ in the HE marketplace.
Martin Myers is a sociologist of education based in the School of Education, University of Nottingham.
Kalwant Bhopal is Professor of Education and Social Justice at the University of Birmingham. She is Director for the Centre for Research in Race and Education (CRRE).