Friday, December 22, 2006

The collapse of "the hierarchy of esteem"?

A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute claims that students select universities from a "hierarchy of esteem," choosing the most prestigious universities that will admit them. However, HEPI also claims that students could choose to live closer to home when studying and so that could challenge this "hierarchy" in higher education. The report argues (reported by the BBC):

"....It says there is a widespread and probably accurate perception that degrees from some universities are more valuable in the job market than others. Although it may be regrettable, students tend to apply to the most prestigious institutions that they think they can get into, it adds. Institutions then select the most able and employers favour candidates for jobs from those institutions. This it describes as "a vicious (or virtuous) circle that perpetuates the hierarchy of esteem". The memo says that while factors may play a part in breaking this pattern, the only way to ensure it is broken would be for the government to control admissions to universities and deny freedom of choice to students. This could mean admissions based on catchment areas as in other countries....."

For one thing, until students choose universities because of location rather than quality or esteem, then it seems this "hierarchy of esteem" will continue. Moreover, it is far from certain why this will be the case if HEPI reminds us that the thought that some degrees at universities are more valuable than others is "widespread and probably accurate"---if it were inaccurate, then perhaps there might be a problem. But that is not the case. Indeed, students rightly choose the best places to go and this, in turn, is recognized by employers. Ok. So when employers are correct to identify students from certain programmes as more capable than others it helps reinforce the good work behind creating, maintaining, and fostering such degrees. A highly successful programme will be just that and it will make it challenging or more difficult for new competition. New competition is often a good thing. However, why should we wantonly punish successful university programmes because they, well, succeed? It is insane. Some programmes do better than others in the RAE, supported by the government. Either the government supports its best programmes or it does not. I never fail to be amazed at the number of fairly radical schemes proposed for any number of bodies to alter higher education in the UK, whether it be the new 1-4 RAE scale or metrics debate or now this. Something as important as higher education surely demands greater thought and support than what we have seen lately. The mind boggles.

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