Critically examine the ways in which Sociological Theorists have contributed to our understanding of Theorising Difference in Higher Education.
Critically examine the ways in which Sociological Theorists have contributed to our understanding of Theorising Difference in Higher Education.
“A University is a place to develop your study of something you're really interested in, and a place to develop new skills and experience independent living.” (Jill Dossor, Durham University Student, 02/04/2004)
“University is a place where you develop (transferable) skills + experience.” (Emily Manktelow, Leeds University Student, 15/04/2004)
Above are just a couple of examples of responses to the question “What is a university?” I asked some friends at university to answer it and overall the response is that a university is a centre of learning attended in order to obtain a qualification that will allow for a ‘good’, perhaps well-paid job in the future. Durham University describes itself as “One of Britain’s leading centres of learning” (www.durham.ac.uk). All this suggests the emphasis is on academic learning at University in order to further oneself both intellectually and within the world of work as well. However despite this there seems to be a contradiction in the definition of a University and the actual experience of students at University. I asked the same friends what their experience of University was like with regards to the academic and social side of their lives.
“It’s about 50% concerned with the academic stuff.” (Sarah Buckley, Oxford University Student, 15/04/20004)
“At Durham, there seems to generally be quite an even balance between education and social life.” (Teresa Hoban, Durham University Student, 02/04/2004)
It is clear from the responses that academic commitments are not the be all and end all at University. It shows that the official statements of the aims of Universities do not cover all aspects of learning that one actually experiences. Mark Twain himself said “I never let schooling interfere with my education” (Twain, M., 1953) suggesting that there is more to education that just books and lessons. This is particularly emphasised at University.
So then, from this, one can ask the question “what do Universities do?” Sociologists give different views depending on their theoretical approach. Durkheim, a positivist functionalist saw education as transmitting the norms and values of society and so promoting the value consensus, a central feature to his idea of society. Education gives members the feeling of belonging that they need, University also adds to this by helping individuals to bond with wider society through meeting new people from different areas/backgrounds and by connecting them to people in the world of work. University prepares students for the adult world and selects them for work based on academic ability.
As Burgess suggests, from a functionalist perspective, it “provides a literate and adequate workforce for advanced industrial society”. (Burgess, Robert G., 1986, Page 12) Skills and knowledge are passed on and students are socialised into necessary values, needed to reproduce society and keep it healthy. Education, like all elements of society, has a function to fulfil and the different parts of the system are interdependent and work together so contributing to a functioning society. (Burgess, Robert G., 1986, page 12). Talcott Parsons thought of schools as an agency of socialisation leading students towards their adult lives, “school functions to internalize in its pupils both the commitments and capacities for the successful performance of their future adult roles” (Parsons, 1959, taken from Halsey, A p434). For many this view of education is difficult to apply as there is a failure to address issues such as gender order and inequalities and the search for talent seems focused on men.
This theory contrasts starkly with that of Karl Marx. He saw education as a ‘tool of the ruling class’. The system promotes their ideologies, the ideologies of the capitalist state. It promotes middle class values, for example ‘deferred gratification’, that the longer you wait for your reward (in this case higher salaries in better jobs) the better it will be. The education system sorts individuals out in order to suit them to their future occupation (Burgess, 1986, p17). This may seem fair, that people are sorted based on their academic ability but Marx believed that this is all based on class. Some classes are destined to succeed as the education system is determined by the ruling class for the ruling class to succeed and the working class to fail, therefore reproducing the class system over and over. There is evidence of working class failure, e.g. fewer working class students at University, future leaders emerge from the ruling class. Public schools design leaders e.g. Eton. Marxist theorists argue that the education system legitimates the inequalities of society and teaches that one gets ahead through exploiting fellow citizens.
Neo Marxists argue along the same lines and simply added to Marxist theories. Education provides appropriate types of personality for different positions in the hierarchy of the world of work. Schools and University feed pupils into different levels. The key work of Bowles and Gintis supported this view. They believed that “the relationships of education…replicate the hierarchical division of labour” (Bowles and Gintis, 1976, p.131). Paul Willis was concerned with youth subcultures and he did his research using the interactionist technique of observation. He aimed to answer the question of why working class students get working class jobs. He found that the ‘lads’ adhered to a set of values (of their subculture) that led to failure in school. This, in turn, led to these ‘lads’ moving straight into low grade manual jobs (Willis, P. 1977). Neo Marxists are very concerned with the notion of class affecting one’s level of achievement within the system as it stands. Like Marxism there is a belief that the values held within the system are those of the middle class.
Between these two more extreme theories Weber lies more like a middle ground. He argued education was connected to status, and this status was seen as outweighing other forms of status such as wealth etc. Achievements in the area of academia say something about the type of person one is, hardworking, committed, scientific, arty etc, mental labour is tied to status. Status and class are distinguished through other features, such as economic indicators. For example, teachers/university lecturers are afforded high status levels but economically their class levels are lower as their salary is lower. In contrast someone who wins the lottery may economically be higher but their status levels remain the same. He used a case study of the ‘Chinese Literati’ to exemplify this. China as always had a system of social rank that is based on educational qualification more than wealth, intellectualism is “the yardstick of social prestige” (Weber, taken from Gerth and Mills, 1948 p.416). Inequalities such as these seem fairer because they are achieved and not ascribed, i.e. one brings is about themselves and they can do something about it if they so wish. However feminists would argue this status isn’t achieved but ascribed through gender.
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Feminism within education tends to take the form more of a critique of other theories. There is an attempt to explain the inequalities, derived from statistics and experiences, concerning gender in the education system. For example, within the tripartite system there were more boys passing the ‘11+’, now fewer girls are seen to be taking sciences at University etc. (Acker, 1981, p.81). Girls are now tending to outperform boys at all levels of education. There was a 10% gap at G.C.S.E. in 2000 and in 2003, 44% girls gained top A/B grades compared to 41% boys. This leads to more female enrolment at University and in 2003 53% of firsts were awarded to women and 48% gained upper second class compared to only 40% men. (Statistics from Bell, D’s speech, , 08/04/2004).
However this does not mean that gender inequality is being eradicated with regards to women. In an article by Susan Bassnett in The Guardian she wrote that at degree level there are far fewer women in maths and engineering etc.(Bassnett, S. , 28/05/2002). More women choose to take degrees in English Literature or Sociology. There is much evidence for this as can be seen from the statistics at Durham University’s website. Admissions for girls to English Literature in 2002 were 300 compared to 99 boys. Contrast this to Engineering where there are 341 boys and only 66 girls (www.dur.ac.uk/pr.office/Students1.htm). Nowadays there is a theory that education is gendered and therefore girls are performing better but only because certain areas of education are developed to suit them. Women are seen as not wanting to compete so move towards taking on domestic duties, i.e. starting a family etc. Susan Bassnett argues that there are far more questions that need to be addressed regarding women’s education and there needs to be “more debate about both the biological and social factors affecting the roles of men and women at University” (Bassnett, S. , 28/05/2002). Another point was that there are fewer women professors and more male academics (Acker, 1994, p.135).
Within these theories questions are raised about the actual experience of education. Will it be different for someone of different gender/race/class? Marx focused on class etc. Firstly there is the initial hurdle of application and admission to University. It has already been said that there is a higher female enrolment at University. In an article in The Guardian, it was argued that this is because girls are more prepared to work more consciously and therefore attain higher grades and are more willing to remain in the education system. They are more adapted to working harder for longer periods of time (Leader, , 21/08/2000). It is widely thought that coursework is more suitable to women and examinations to men and there has been a move in the curriculum to include the option of more coursework and at University there is more continuous assessed work, e.g. essays.
As women choose different subjects to men their experience of learning will be different. They are lead more towards ‘caring’ professions such as teaching. This is evident as at primary school level only 17% of teachers are male. The Education department at Durham University has 403 females compared to only 47 males, one of the highest differences (www.dur.ac.uk/pr.office/Students1.htm). This shows that in some ways, perhaps not because of social factors alone, Universities do feed different people into different areas based on gender. Durkheim would point out that this is all part of a working society; women are fed into roles that are more suited to them to allow for a smooth running society. The experience may be different as the degrees women tend to choose are based less on right and wrong answers and more on interpretation and debate. This is said to be less aggressive.
The fact that women choose certain subjects is true across the different universities Newcastle University shows 4964 females doing humanities compared to 3782 males whereas in the science and engineering areas 3226 males compared to 1653 females (). This suggests that between difference institutions the experience with regard to gender would be similar as the distribution of male/female students in different faculties is similar. Looking in from outside one may think that females would feel severely outnumbered and it has even been suggested ‘threatened’ by higher number of males on their course in the sciences and add to this the fact that this area is seen as ‘aggressive’ which girls are supposed to dislike. Boys in the areas of humanities may feel less manly and that their subject is too ‘girly’. However while this could be true that some subjects are taught in a way that could be seen as better suited to women, e.g. more essays as examined work in the humanities compared to more examinations in the scientific areas. This could lead to women excelling in certain fields but not doing so well in others. Speaking to friends on courses with higher levels of females or males I found that neither found it threatening and although it was sometimes very noticeable they didn’t report that it affected their study. However this is very limited response and more full scale research is required.
The problem of gender inequalities may be seen as only a problem to feminists. Durkheim dismisses these issues as natural. Women are designed for certain roles and it is all part of the system. This change in attainment achievements can be explained by the change in the curriculum to suit women’s skills. For Marxists there is seen to be no need for feminism as it promotes equality for all. If class boundaries were broken down all would be able to achieve.
This emphasis of Marx on class is reflected by the dominance of research in this area, an example of this is the Robbins Committee report on higher education. It shows students are 33 times more likely to go on to higher education if they are from a higher professional class. It points out that the new universities may have changed this but this is because the working class students go to those universities that are less prestigious in the public’s eyes (Robbins Report, 1963 taken from Worsley, P, 1970, p175). Therefore there is still inequality.
There are even schemes set up to try and ease the problem. University education is predominantly a middle class value, now more than in the 1960’s (Ward, L. , 10/02/2004) that is now being filtered through to the working classes in the process of ‘embourgoisement’. David Blunkett has remarked that there are acute problems as there are no longer the traditional routes into manual and craft labour because we, now, live in a “new knowledge driven global economy” (Leader, 21/08/2000). The working classes have to continue their education as there is little employment for those who don’t. The demands of the working world are ever rising and becoming more competitive.
Students at private or public education nearly always go onto University and are usually at the more highly rated institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Warwick etc. This shows that their grades are predominantly higher than those from state schools. As this education requires money the classes involved are usually upper or middle. Durkheim dismisses the issue of inequality in private education as being a consumer choice of the affluent. They have achieved their higher class status fairly and so can choose how to educate their children. These private institutions are another part of the clock as they produce those that go on to be leaders.
So University attendance by the upper and middle classes is already high. State schools have found in their examinations that those that achieve higher are from middle class backgrounds. Theories behind this suggest this could be due to several factors ranging from educational toys from a young age, more parental support/pressure, previous generations at University. This in, itself, can lead, again, to more middle class students applying and attending University.
Working class students, especially as research suggests it is a fairly new pressure that pushes them to go to University, may have parents that didn’t attend University and so have little experience of what it would be like. Some may even regard knowledge as common sense acquired through experience (Luttrel, W, taken from Wrigley, J, 1992, p173). This can lead to less support as they have not as much pushing them to do well or even apply. This is called a cultural clash, where the culture that parents may have been brought up with clashes with the middle class culture at school. This concept of working class culture affecting attainment is featured in Bordieu’s work. He studied the way culture filters through society. Schools do not give all the culture needed to succeed and those who can show students these values at home are advantaged. He believed that those who control in economic terms also control culture and so can ensure high attainment (Bordieu, taken from Burgess, R, 1986, p 90). Less support from parents in the working class may also be down to the fact that, in general, they have to work longer hours, get paid less and so are tired, maybe stressed and therefore can afford less interest.
Explanations of class differences tend to focus on material and cultural differences although there has been some who argue it is all down to genetics. Those in the upper classes are simply cleverer, i.e. have a higher IQ (which is debatable as a measure of intelligence anyway as it may be biased in itself). Durkheim argues that this is true, those who are able achieve the higher attainment. Sociologists focus more on material and cultural differences though. Money and its distribution is the major factor, the mere cost of University can deter those with less money from going even with the promise of higher loans. These will have to be paid back some choose not to go. The idea of having to pay back a lot of money and over a long period of time does not appeal, especially perhaps if the students are from a family with a background of debts.
There is a tendency for there to be higher numbers of working class students at newer institutions than at older ones such as Durham University. Tradition is an important feature of older Universities and alumni may have children, grand children etc at the University. Alumni may encourage students to apply to their University and if said, alumni are upper/middle class this means their children may be too thus repeating the cycle of older Universities having predominantly upper/middle class students.
This ‘disadvantage’ of the working class is also evident beyond education despite moving onto higher education. The work of John Brennan and Tarla Shah highlights this. They tracked 4000 UK graduates four years after graduation. They found
“social factors, particularly social class, also race, gender, ethnicity do affect what jobs students get, just getting into higher education isn’t enough to remove disadvantages of social background” (Brennan, J, taken from Curtis, P., 19/02/2004)
Even without the factors of working class students attending newer Universities likely to have lower entry requirements there is still an element of “social determinant” (Curtis, P., www.guardian.co.uk 19/02/2004). Factors such as financial constraints limit the availability of resources provided by Universities to working class students. Schemes that improve employability, e.g. Union Clubs, work experience may cost money and therefore poorer students cannot afford this on top of tuition and residential fees and lose out. This means that they’re employability after University is lower and they are therefore more likely to earn less and have to work more hours or even find it harder to find employment after University. For Marx this is how inequality has evolved. Now people can go to University but will still end up in lower jobs as the discrimination becomes not whether one has degree or not but where it is from and what other qualifications are offered.
This highlights differences in the experience of University of the different classes. Those from working class backgrounds who may have less money may not only experience it different because the University is newer etc. Within their life at University there may be opportunities offered that are highly praised e.g. Union societies that debate important topics, however their ability to accept these opportunities may be impinged upon by money issues. University is not cheap and having to pay a lot for the basic tuition may mean working class students have less money to spend on these extra activities therefore although they may still enjoy it they will not have all the same opportunities as the richer students. This can also lead to inequality, highlighted by Brennan and Shah but not only this; it affects the social life as well. Poorer students may need to acquire jobs in order to cover their expenses at University. This will mean they have less time to study or socialize and therefore their experience again will be altered and could even lead to lower achievement levels. T
Class can be seen as the most common explanation for attainment differences but, within class, race and ethnicity also play a differentiating role. It is a relatively new area of study within the education area. Defining what each is, is a problem in itself and many argue that it depends on the society in which one is working and it can lead to discrepancies between different research pieces. The focus of research is into those from ethnic minorities not doing as well as white children. Brittain and Maynard criticized a lot of research as not being analytical enough and focusing too much on describing what the problem was (Brittain and Maynard, 1984, p153-154). They also argued that these children were not only disadvantaged but also discriminated against by the structure of the education system itself (Burgess, 1986, p99). Race and ethnicity is more and more diverse within the education system. .
“To embrace diversity by promoting and maintaining an inclusive and supportive work and study environment that enables all members of our University community to achieve their full potential.” ()
Above is the mission statement for diversity and equality at the University of Durham. Most Universities have something similar. When applying to University ethnicity is not disclosed, this is to ensure equal opportunities. It is an important area of discussion in the education system.
Ethnicity at University level tends to be more concerned not with attainment levels but with the differences between different institutions intake. Durham is highly skewed in the ethnic origin of its students. As a student at Durham it is obvious from lectures, halls, social events, libraries that there is a very high dominance of white students. Compare this to The University of Westminster, praised by The Times newspaper as the best university in the modern sector. The atmosphere is said to be diverse and what other universities see as widening participation is mainstream here (). City of London University is different again with a higher proportion of students from ethnic minorities. Asking a friend at this University who is Asian she describes students as breaking off into groups, often by ethnicity and so integration doesn’t appear to be as high as expected.
These differences are more likely to be because students from ethnic minorities choose not to apply to some universities. There are theories as to why this is. Larger cities such as London or Birmingham may seem more attractive as there is a lot to do and they are diverse in themselves and Durham is a smaller more traditional English city and university so therefore will attract those from more traditional English backgrounds. However it cannot be discounted that there is a difference in levels of attainment prior to gaining entry to University and as older universities have higher grade boundaries it could be that those from ethnic minorities do not apply because of this.
A lot of explanation for this is still based in class differences and this is how Marx would view this area. Those from ethnic minorities are less likely to be middle class and attainment can therefore be explained through class differences. Culture is another factor. Some sociologists argue that there is an element of cultural deprivation and this means those factors needed for high attainment just are not present in the cultures of some ethnic minorities. The middle class nature of the education system means that there is a culture within it and some ethnic minority cultures may clash with this. Ken Pryce discounted this with hi study of W. Indian communities in Bristol. He found that a lot of W. Indian parents had very high academic aspirations for their children (Pryce, K. 1986). Nowadays people are more likely to argue that the culture is not deprived but simply different and this may lead to lower attainment. The class and gender differences within ethnic minorities are also as prevalent as with white students.
There are also a higher proportion of students from a private school background and this could also be why more white people are at Durham. As an old institution and with public and private schools tending to be more traditional there may be a lot more recommendation from these schools to select Durham and so therefore more applicants from these backgrounds that tend to be white. Here lies a Marxist argument. Working within the class rhetoric the private/state schools divide means the current ‘meritocratic’ system is unfair. Private schools have traditional links to the best Universities and have more money so better resources, smaller classes and therefore have higher levels of attainment.
Within quite a few ethnic minorities there is an emphasis on the family and it being close knit. This may lead to students wanting to be at University nearer their families. Cities such as London, Birmingham etc have higher levels of ethnic minorities and therefore students from these families may choose to live at home or live near home when they go to University and therefore select a University within the city they are from.
From this it is easy to say that the experiences of those from ethnic minorities at Durham University will be very different to those at City of London University. There are far more clubs and societies relating to different ethnicities. Some bars and clubs are set up by and for those from different ethnicities and there are nights at the University main bar celebrating the diversity of each ethnicity. A white person may even find it harder to fit in with regard to their ethnicity as they would be in the minority. These Universities are highly contrasting. Others perhaps are more mixed and here one could theorize that ethnicity would not be a huge factor that affects the experience of these students as not one ethnicity dominates. There is still obviously a wide difference between some universities and this needs to be addressed.
There are many factors that can potentially affect the experience of University and class, race, ethnicity and gender and the ones studied by sociology as having the highest impact on attainment levels. These are the areas that are addressed by the Government as problematic and so the ones that they focus on changing. Gender differences in choices at University tend to be seen as inequalities by feminists and are seen more often as differences explained by fair choices. However there are attempts at school level to try and entice girls into doing more scientific subjects, especially at all-girl’s schools. It has to do with sex-role socialization and how to socialize girls so that they want to do sciences. For example at a young age, their toys encourage them to be passive, e.g. dolls etc. Arnot suggested that parents should try “forms of dual role typing” in order to promote science as part of femininity. (Arnot, 1983). The success of schemes to try and improve female attainment levels has worked and now as David Blunkett said there has been a reverse to try and up the levels achieved by boys (Leader, , 21/08/2000). Regarding race and ethnicity, universities set up their own schemes to try and improve diversity as seen by Durham University’s mission statement. Schools try and promote University as a good place for all to go and therefore open it up to everyone.
The largest area of focus for widening participation is class. The Government has even been accused of ‘social engineering’ by trying to push more working class students through to University without regard of the consequence for those in the middle and upper classes. In an article in The Guardian it was reported about the idea to implement a scheme of offering lower grades of entry to those from poorer state schools. Marxists would see this as fairer but would argue that it should not be needed. Institutions were to take into account the ‘obstacles’ faced by some applicants in applying to University. In all about 71% were pro and 25% against. Edinburgh University already implements this method (Ward, L., , 10/02/2004). The Government hoped this will widen participation but some argued it would discriminate against students who are clever from middle class backgrounds. It is argued that it would simply be better to allocate places at University based on actual A level grades and not predictions.
A major area of concern for students is the prospect of ‘top-up fees’. These are set to be introduced from 2006 and will increase the charges of tuition fees. These are to be income-assessed so therefore working class students are promised to be allocated grants to pay for them. There will however be a cut off point somewhere in the lower middle classes that will possible mean some of them will not be able to afford to go to University. It could be the case that in a few years time sociologists will be investigating the depleting number of middle class students. If this doesn’t happen and there is much higher number of students many argue a degree will become worth less and less in the workplace as more and more people have them. Work experience will be required in order to obtain higher status jobs and ability to obtain this will be limited again by the factors that at the moment limit attainment. Marxist theory can be transferred to this new inequality.
University is said to be a centre of learning and people hope it will lead them onto better paid jobs. However with many people leaving many different universities with the same degree it is hard to see who is specialized and in what. It could perhaps be more viable for universities to become more specialized units: some focusing on vocation degrees, such as teaching, doctoring, that allow students to move straight into specific areas in the world of work. Some still being more academic but as there would be fewer students going into academic subjects these will be more specialized and less common within the workplace allowing room for both those with vocational and academic degrees. In my opinion universities as they stand are too hierarchical and implementing different types of higher education would be a more viable way to increase access to higher education.
Acker, Sandra. (1994) “Gendered Education” Buckingham, Open University Press
Arnot, Madeleine. (1983) “Educating Girls” Milton Keynes, Open University Press
Bowles, S. and Gintis H. (1976) “Schooling in Capitalist America” London, Routledge and Kegan Paul
Brittan, A. and Maynard, M. (1984) “Sexism, Racism and Oppression” Oxford, Blackwell
Burgess, R.G. (1986) “Sociology, Education and Schools” London, Batsford Ltd.
Gerth, H.H. and Wright Mills, C. (1948) “From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology” London, Routledge
(Parsons, T (1959) taken from)
Halsey, A.H., Floud J. and Anderson, C.A. (1961) “Education, Economy and Society” New York, Freepress
Pryce, K. (1986) “Endless Pressure: A Study of W. Indian Lifestyles in Bristol” Bristol, Bristol Classic Press
Twain, Mark. (1953) “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” Harmondsworth, Puffin Books.
Willis, P. (1977) “Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Jobs” Farnborough, Saxon House
(Report of the Committee of Higher Education (Robbins Report) taken from)
Worsley, P. (1970) “Modern Sociology, Introductory Readings” Middlesex, Penguin Books
(Luttrel, W. taken from)
Wrigley, J. (1992) “Education, Gender and Equality” London, The Falmer Press
Acker, Sandra. (1981) “No-Womans Land: British Sociology of Education 1960-1979” Sociological Review, vol. 29, no. 1 (p.77-104)
I would like to mention the help of students who answered my queries.