Michael O’Sullivan reviews a book that dares to ask the fundamental question facing all universities in the twenty-first century.

Tom Sperlinger, Josie McLellan, Richard Pettigrew, Who Are Universities For? Re-Making Higher Education (Bristol UP, 2018), 200pp.

This is an important and ambitious book on the state of higher education that also offers serious and achievable goals and models for “re-making” or redesigning how higher education operates and is run. The authors acknowledge that there has been a great deal of discussion and many publications on the role of universities and higher education in society in recent years – something that is badly needed to keep the conversation going. Their own study is perhaps quite unique in the field in laying out clear guidelines and achievable objectives for determining how best to revitalise a university system that in many cases is perpetuating inequalities through a strict adherence to government policies (in the case of the UK) on fees and to the narrow criteria of rankings bodies. One new book series – Palgrave’s Critical Universities Series – has contributed much to the discussion in recent years and my own book Academic Barbarism, Universities and Inequality (2016) offered its own contribution to the debate in that series.

Here, the authors demonstrate clearly how the meritocratic university system serves not only to perpetuate inequalities but also to leave some minority and working class students feeling that although they may no longer be excluded from the system they are nonetheless facing exclusions from within the system. The authors document how due to the recent fees hikes in the UK the overall number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering universities in England has dropped 15% since 2011, with the cuts coming in the part-time sector (while the number of full-time disadvantaged students in universities has increased by 8% the number of part-time disadvantaged students has halved) (36). They also discuss, in giving very moving transcriptions from interviews with students, how individual students’ lives have been transformed by a new course they designed at Bristol University – a foundation course in Arts and the Humanities. In this course, students are accepted chiefly on the basis of in-depth interviews and personal statements. It is a course that typically enrolls about 27 students each year, and the authors spend time detailing how many of those students they describe as “false negatives” – or students typically turned away unfairly each year through the regular admissions process – really blossom and excel on courses that they would otherwise not have been admitted to or, more importantly, would ordinarily have felt excluded from.

The feelings of intimidation and exclusion older people from disadvantaged backgrounds experience when contemplating entering university are very real and the authors again present us with evidence of this through moving testimony and anecdotal evidence from students who were persuaded to apply – having failed to submit an application – on the strength of references. The personal narratives of students such as Nina and the testimonials on behalf of the Open University (a wonderful university well ahead of its time in terms of open access that this reviewer worked for in England) by the former student and RAF employee Jim are extremely moving and remind educators of how important it is to reflect on our admissions processes and systems of evaluation.

The book also presents workable challenges to all universities in terms of admissions, course content, and assessment. The authors make full participation the goal of their hypothetical university. Instead of simply opting for greater representation of minority groups into an unchanged meritocratic system, somewhat akin to affirmative action, they argue that admitting a different range of individuals to the current higher education system is not sufficient since then these minority students would simply discover, as they document clearly, that the exclusions are now to be found within the system; the system itself needs to change (132).

Perhaps most importantly, the book reminds us of the need to offer more places to mature students and to part-time students, not on expensive MA courses as is the practice in Hong Kong where I work, but in the general undergraduate and postgraduate student populations. The number of mature students and part-time students on regular undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the government universities in Hong Kong is almost non-existent even though it is something many departments push for. Sadly, this is another truth the book reveals; the regional nature of higher education is often forgotten in an age where ranking tables gives us all the impression that everything is done to the same tune across all international higher education institutions. However, the ranking tables hide a multitude of regional differences that determine participation rates. The UK is far ahead of Hong Kong in terms of the numbers of mature and part-time students admitted onto regular undergraduate and postgraduate courses and this is down to institutional, and social factors that have their roots well beyond the bounds of the university walls. The authors call at the end of their book for a university without walls and it is a noble vision; however, the reality may be that it is the campus experience – not the online experience open to all – that families are eager to pay for (what the current period of online teaching due to Covid-19 is only bringing out more).

While these UK-based authors present us with an inspiring, impassioned and deeply moving study of the transformational affects a fairer and more open university system can offer both at admissions level and throughout the degree programme both for teachers and students, it also makes me – an academic in Hong Kong – realise ever more how entrenched the regional differences are around meritocracy and the admission of mature students in different, continental university systems. While it is conceivable that they may well achieve some of their aims in the context of the English university system, the irony is that the English university system is at the same time being propped up financially by the admission of thousands of Chinese and Asian students whose home institutions operate to a very different set of standards and cultural expectations. Universities in Hong Kong, for example, are far more likely to use the mantra of lifelong learning and continuing education not to offer open courses for everyone at the undergraduate level (participation rates at Hong Kong unis are very low due to restricted quotas) but instead so as to offer expensive MA courses that only serve to perpetuate the impression that an elite education is for the minority who can afford it. However, this reviewer has possibly never read a more moving presentation of the case for systemic change to our meritocratic and deeply unfair university system.

Michael O’Sullivan is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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