Sipping through my vat of tea in the post-Christmas fug of a January morning, I was transported back to my happy days at university by Radio 4’s ‘The Value of Culture’ with Melvin Bragg.
The series explores the idea and evolution of culture, and (though the whole programme was thoroughly engaging) it was the mention of the names of cultural scholars that I had referenced in so many essays which sent me spiralling back all those years – Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall.
At the start of this New Year, it made me think of the new beginning, new learning and new ideas that burst into consciousness during that time as a working class student, dipping my toe into the life of academia.
Several cups later, as I flicked (or should it be clicked?) through the virtual papers some startling stats caught my eye from the Independent’s exclusive interview with Universities minister David Willetts. The numbers highlight a worrying escalation in the trend among white working class-males who are underachieving and being ‘turned off’ from the lure of a university education.
The Indie article says final figures from last autumn’s intake show a 54,000 drop in applications from men – 13 % down on the previous year and some four times higher than the fall-off from female applicants. Mr Willets even said that there are less males submitting UCAS forms than there are women entering university. Ouch.
It’s a no-brainer that the massive £9,000 a year fees many universities now charge is putting potential applicants off posting that UCAS form, but why are so many young, working-class men falling by the wayside?
Mr Willett’s idea to tackle the problem is essentially one of positive discrimination – he wants universities to target white, working-class teenage boys in the same way they would students from other disadvantaged communities and ethnic minorities.
He proposes that if universities fail to deliver on minority quotas they can be refused permission to charge fees higher than £6,000 a year. A campaign to instil greater understanding in the fees system amongst parents is also planned.
Going back to ‘The Value of Culture’, it was interesting to hear one contributor speaking about the ways culture and society are intrinsically tied up with education. The Education Act of the 1870’s set the ball rolling by establishing compulsory (and eventually free) elementary education, creating a mass reading public, moving culture and society forward.
With so many young working-class males opting out of higher Ed, I wonder what sort of culture will breed in future society if we don’t find the measures that welcome these sheep back to the flock.