Levelling the playing field: How to create an actual meritocracy

One of the first heated debates I had when I started University (the first of many, I might add) was concerning whether or not the UK’s education system was a ‘meritocracy’. I, coming from a state school with poor standards and low achievement levels, certainly could not accept that the society we currently live in is meritocratic. Seeing as the rates of university entrance at my school were probably somewhere in the region of ten percent (and of course most of these were not elite universities) I was not willing to believe that the only reason that private school students, or students from wealthier backgrounds in general do better on average because ‘they are just better’ and this, to me, seems to be the logical conclusion if we did indeed live in a meritocracy.

Of course, you could say that we live in a meritocracy, but do not yet possess a level playing field. This is perhaps more convincing. So what would a level playing field look like? Well, what it would look like would be that the average university entrance level at every school would be the same. Achieving this would be a colossal step forward for social mobility – but set out so starkly, it seems impossible.

Where I think education policy has gone wrong in recent years, in regards to tackling this issue, is the lack of understanding by politicians at the state of education at the bottom. That is, the reality of education the poorest in societies that have no choice and overwhelmingly send their children to the worst schools.

I can in some sense understand where a politician from a middle class background would be coming from if he said we lived in a meritocracy. If a child does well at GCSE, and at their A Levels then they can attend a top university, and get a supported by the state in doing so. Of course if they are poor as well they will also receive a larger loan, a lot of which they will never have to pay back. How can anyone argue that this is not meritocratic?

Now, this is where I believe we lack understanding. Of course all of this is true but what the poorest children in the worst school lack, is not opportunity itself, but the lack of awareness of the opportunities. This is where the deficit is. University is not in these children’s heads; it is not part of their consciousness.

It is hard for people to grasp this. I personally was always going to go to university. My parents did not exactly sit me down and tell me, as it was a just a sort of unspoken fact. For a child growing up in that environment it is easy to see why I ended up where I did – but we must realise that this is not the reality for many children.

So if one wanted to really level the playing field they would do well by educating children about the realities of education in this country. About the paths that are there and the opportunities that are available. I realise that this alone will not be enough, but it is at least a start. At my school, university was only really spoken about to a small group of ‘gifted and talented’ students – if this is the case then how do we expect people to widen their horizons?

This is not to say that I do not acknowledge the difference in resources and practices across all schools, of course I do, but that in many ways is a different debate. Helping students achieve success in examination is only a small part of the education process. Predominantly, we need to equip children with tools with which then can shape their own lives. This is how education should function at its most fundamentally influential level. If we really want people to reach their potential, we need not only provide the opportunities for them to do so but almost acknowledge where they have come from as well. To really level the playing field, school must give clear, lucid advice to pupils from all backgrounds, about future opportunities and what education in this country can really offer them. Only when this is true in every school in the country will we able to even consider calling ourselves a meritocracy.

Humanities Students: it is not all about contact hours

A phrase I am often saddened to hear relating to the way a university education is judged is in its ‘value for money’. This phrase not only saddens me because it reminds me that we live in a country  which insists on putting a price tag on a university education – the value of which I believe is priceless – it also depresses me because it reminds me of the perverse attitude that we now have towards education in general.

Ever since the increase of university fees in the UK, I have read a number of pieces in the media, often by students themselves, concerning contact time for humanity degrees. One that I remember quite vividly was by a student at UCL studying English. She lamented the lack of contact hours in an English degree compared to science ones, suggesting that perhaps, when applying for a humanities degree, students should be asked whether they would like to reconsider their decision. These feelings and opinions troubled me profoundly.

Firstly, one’s degree course should stem from love for their subject and a desire to acquire a sophisticated knowledge of it, so their decision should be completely unrelated to contact hours. (I will, however, concede that this could influence one’s choice of institution, for example if a course at one university has more hours than another). Secondly, why are more contact hours seen as intrinsically better? From the viewpoint of an English student or, indeed, any humanity student, surely the question is one of quality not quantity? If you do a lot of preparation for a seminar, then you will surely get a lot more out of it than if you had three and did not prepare for them at all. That is simply obvious.

However, my main objection to said article, as well as this feeling in general, is summed up by her title ‘Are humanity students teaching themselves?’ Fortunately, we both came to the same conclusion – yes. Although for some reason she saw this as a bad thing.

When a student reaches university they must realise that this is a step up. Not only is it a step up in terms of difficulty, it is also a step up in terms of attitude. It is no longer adequate for a student to merely go through the motions, revise for exams and do essays the night before – if you intend to succeed you must live and breathe your subject.

What seems to dominate this argument about value for money and contact hours is an attitude that the university and our departments should be trying as hard as possible to help us achieve in our degrees. Unfortunately this is not the case – this is not their responsibility – it is ours.

If you are doing a degree then academics and lecturers are not there to spoon feed you answers. They are there to offer guidance and assistance, and they are not teachers. As a student you are making the transition from someone who is taught to someone who is self-taught. This is crucial; as how else would any student go on to do an MA or a PHD?

Now, many students may argue that because my point is true for humanities and science students I am being inconsistent. Well, science students have more contact time due to the way in which their degrees are set up. They need time to be in labs as well as having a lot of rigid content outlined in lecturers. This is not true for humanities students – an awful lot of what we need to learn we can learn from books and does not require copious amounts of contact time.

Is this not, in fact, a desirable situation? Why would you want more lectures and seminars where you are told what to do, when you could have plenty of time to think for yourself, reflect on problems, and read into the aspects that interest you?

It really upsets me that some humanity students do not care for the freedom that their courses offer them. It upsets me that, in a time when what we really need is creativity and ingenuity, people wish to be spoon facts that will serve as a means to an end with no interest in the content. As I have said, education is process – we need to think less of what we get from it and more about what it can draw from us.