Educating Uniformity

In a recent article, George Monbiot agonises about how the media got it so wrong on Corbyn. Monbiot’s complaint is that the journalists and pundits listened to each other telling each other how awful Corbyn was rather than listening to Corbyn himself.

The reason this happened, Monbiot says, is how the media recruit journalists. In the old days, he says, journalists came from all walks of life. Many had little formal education, and few had university degrees. Now, journalists have university degrees, and this leads to a remoteness. As a result,

[journalists] spend too much time in each other’s company, a tendency that’s fatal in an industry that is meant to reflect the world… What counts is not only the new people and new ideas you encounter but also the old ones you leave behind. The first ambition of a journalist should be to know as few journalists as possible; to escape the hall of mirrors.

The malaise which Monbiot identifies is, I think, a lot more widespread than he realizes. I think it is also true of life in large corporations, governments and NGOs.

When I first looked for work, most of the world was run by people without university degrees. In the 1970s, only about 10% of school students went on to university. Some went to polytechnics (which have since become universities) and others to vocational training. But the vast majority went from school directly into the workforce.

As a result, most of the managers I then knew, both as friends and as colleagues, had started at the bottom and worked their way up. The first job of one friend was filling the inkwells at a bank branch; another was offered a job on the basis of his ability to catch the rugby ball unexpectedly hurled at him during the interview. Both of them, and many others like them, went on to hold senior jobs with major responsibilities.

Looking around the corporate world today, it is almost impossible to find such people. No large corporation will employ anyone who doesn’t have a degree.

At the same time, universities in the Anglophone world have become much less diverse places – and I don’t mean in the ethnic terms by which they measure diversity. I went to university in 1979. The composition of my cohort was reflective of the general population: probably 70% were from working class backgrounds and many were the first in their families to go to university.

In 1981/2, between my third and fourth years (Scottish universities had four-year courses then), Thatcher slashed university funding. This resulted in a drop in the university population and a rise in polytechnic and college populations. The value of student grants had already been severely eroded by inflation, thus putting parents under more pressure to top-up the grants. This hit low-income families disproportionately. The combination of these two factors – perhaps a kind of tipping point – resulted in a sudden demographic change: the 1982 cohort was observably not working class.

What academic research I’ve been able to track down reinforces the point: when loans came in, working class families didn’t want to take on the risk of a loan, (see also here) and the introduction of tuition fees has further exacerbated the problem. Higher education is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the well-off.

The result is that universities lack diversity (warning: I don’t have access to the full text of this paper, so I may be taking the findings in the abstract out of context). The people universities take in are raised in a near-identical middle-class way, those they spit out are even more uniform. And, when the graduates go into the corporate world, any originality they may have clung on to despite university is soon scorched out of them.

The result is twofold. As a consultant, I frequently have to attend meetings at which a whole bunch of people with identical upbringings, career trajectories and prejudices reinforce their own mistakes. The result ranges from mere inefficiency to magnificent follies.

The more pernicious effect is societal: opportunity denied. The fact that social mobility has tanked since the Thatcherite colonization by the middle-class of the university system may be an unexpected consequence, but is no coincidence. And this brings me back to Corbyn and Trump. I am neither a Corbynista nor (as readers may have inferred) a Trumpite, but their appeal was to those for whom opportunity lacks: the working class and the young. I’m not saying that Trump’s or Corbyn’s (diametrically opposed) policies will work, but that’s who they targeted and hence the press’s inability to predict it, and the corporate and governmental inability to comprehend it.

(My thanks to SB for lambasting the original of this post. That forced me to back up my statements with research – always a good thing.)