River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Academic Snobbery

April 2002

Part one of this month's Soapbox

I can't stand snobbery. I suppose most people would say that, including most snobs. Perhaps we are all snobs in one way or another. Even worse in my opinion, however, is the academic snobbery which I believe pervades the academic world and UK society in general. In this country post GCSE courses that do not lead to A levels and degrees are not regarded with the same esteem as others. Even university degrees in business studies, science and engineering do not appear to have the same esteem in some quarters as those in the humanities and the arts, and this despite the fact that the majority of students find maths and science subjects more difficult and opt for courses in other disciplines, seeing them as the softer option. Of course it is desirable that all students should get a grounding in the humanities and in science, but life and times are such that the student needs to select particular fields of study in their later teens.

It is towards the disciplines of the humanities and the arts where many of our more able students are directed, especially those students in the more expensive independent schools from where a high proportion of our decision makers are still recruited. It is claimed that these subjects permit the study of man's creative activities, thereby encouraging creativity and independent thought, but are not science, engineering and medical achievements even more creative? A person lacking in knowledge of literature, classical music, history and languages, including, perhaps, Latin, may be regarded by some as rather ignorant and uneducated yet those same people do not see their own lack of scientific and/or business knowledge as ignorance or a shortcoming in their own education.

I suspect that one explanation of this skewed attitude towards study in this country is that the majority of those in the teaching profession have a more classical background and are keen to encourage their students along similar paths, those with scientific and business qualifications are less likely to be attracted to teaching in schools. Another explanation is partly historical in that higher education was once the prerogative of the 'upper classes' and the study of any subject which might be regarded as vocational was beneath them, with the possible exceptions of theology and medicine. The long established tradition of the 'lower classes' wishing to ape the 'upper classes' meant that the nouveau rich sent their children to study alongside the 'upper classes' so that the class snobbery extended to become academic snobbery. Yet another factor maybe that the majority of our politicians and policy making civil servants also have a non-vocational academic background.

Once again I believe that our continental rivals do things rather better. In Germany, for example, the engineering Dipl. Ing. is one of the more highly regarded qualifications. I believe that the superior industrial performance often achieved by our continental rivals is in no small measure a result of our educational slant. The net result of all this in this country is that all students are pushed along a more academic route, almost regardless of their interests or their academic ability, in the hope that they might make it to pursue a university course. The more vocational and practical courses leading to NVQ, City and Guilds, RSA, National and Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, for which many students are more suited by their interests and/or talents, tend to be seen by society, and by many students and their parents, as second best, the place for those that couldn't make it to uni. Yet these courses generally offer a better preparation for a career, they are welcomed by employers and they provide a base for further studies. Most universities will consider these vocational courses as potential entry qualifications for degree courses for those wishing to switch, there's many a Ph.D that followed a route through National Certificate. Perhaps it would help if we called all courses which are two years beyond GCSE - 'A levels' and all post 'A level courses' - Degrees.

Ron Watts

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