Behind the elite university’s ‘visage of meritocracy’
,Far from being bastions of intellectual inquiry and meritocracy, in both Britain and the United States elite universities reproduce the ethnic, racial and class divisions central to the countries on either side of the Atlantic, says Elite Universities and the Making of Privilege: Exploring race and class in global educational economies, published on 31 January 2023.
The study finds that these divisions prevent all but the most affluent students of colour – both ‘home’ and international students – who attend two elite universities in Britain and two in the United States from fully attaching to their universities and, indeed, even to the beautiful campus spaces in which they study.
“Students who haven’t progressed along the elite pathways of private schools and familial connections communicated similar experiences of feeling that they don’t belong in comparison to their wealthier white counterparts,” says one of the study’s two authors, Professor Kalwant Bhopal, who teaches education and social justice at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom where he directs the Centre for Research in Race and Education.
“This almost universal experience is characterised by a lack of capital necessary to thrive in the elite university environment, not just financial, but social and cultural capital as well. This makes it incredibly difficult for students who have not been traditionally accepted into these ‘elite’ spaces to navigate life at university,” she says.
Characterising their findings, arising out of one of the few studies of graduate students, Bhopal’s co-author, University of Nottingham sociologist Martin Myers, adds: “Elite universities are maintaining the status of privileged groups while maintaining a carefully curated visage of meritocracy.
“The elite status and branding of these institutions serve both the interests of Western dominance in the global higher education sector and the local interests of a privileged elite. Universities at this level are often incredibly unwelcoming for those outside of the traditionally accepted social circle, and further ingrain race and class discrimination.”
Borrowing from Bourdieu
While it might seem surprising that among Bhopal and Myers’ 49 respondents, 44 took their undergraduate degrees at elite universities, this is one of the study’s great strengths. It allows the researchers to rule out the culture shock that working-class students, students of colour and international students of colour experience when stepping, as graduate students, onto the leafy campuses of a Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge.
These students should know the dance steps, so to speak, and be familiar with dining rooms where tuxedoed servers bring their food, described as “Harry Potter-world in the flesh” by the Briton, Georgina, who comes from a working-class background and attends the school dubbed UK2.
And yet, the majority of working-class students and students of colour (of which there is overlap) in both the UK and the US feel alienated, some by class, some by culture (this applies more to international students) and by racist behaviours directed towards them.
The central intellectual armatures of the book are provided by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work and by critical race theorists. From Bourdieu, they borrow the concepts that there are three different forms of capital: economic, social and cultural, and that the former allows well-off parents to provide their children with the latter two, which then allows them, through their elite education, to begin accumulating more economic capital.
Different forms of capital, it turns out, are fungible. Perhaps more importantly, as in the case of understanding Tony, a Briton, who says, irrespective of his wealth, he worked hard and deserves the elite education US2 provides him, Bourdieu provides Bhopal and Myers with the word to describe “individual dispositions and characteristics that have been learned and practised across their life course”: habitus, which, to stay with the British example, in practical terms translates into the behaviours of the posh and what those behaviours indicate about expected privilege. (I will discuss critical race theory below.)
Early in the book, Bhopal and Myers unpack a few lines from a 2013 speech from the then UK secretary of state for education Michael Gove who waxed about education’s “cultural capital” being the “most precious thing” that could be bequeathed to children because it allowed “social mobility”.
Tellingly, even as he was supposedly praising state-supported schools, the product of Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, Scotland, sounded a bit like Thomas Hughes (a point the authors missed) praising pluck and hard work as Hughes did in Tom Brown’s School Days (published in 1857), albeit with “the accumulation of cultural capital” rather than winning at cricket or rugby being the focus.
A favourite trope of conservative politicians, “the cream rising to the top” manages what should be both philosophically and rhetorically impossible: as it makes an assertion, it denies it. Cream rising to the top acknowledges “that many working-class children are disadvantaged”, Bhopal and Myers write, “but seemingly absolve that state of affairs by claiming that the best will always be able to make good”.
By the time she was interviewed, Bethany, a poor, working-class student from a single parent home and a student at UK1, was heartily sick of being compared to cream.
“Even if it is just that I’m here through luck, it would be wrong to even suggest that some marginal fairy tale of being in the right place at the right time democratises UK1. That’s probably worse than being told I’m the cream rising to the top. Being here is none of those. It’s all about being hoovered up into the scheme of things. It matters to me and to everyone, but it’s totally beyond my control.”
Readers who are unfamiliar with the structure of English higher education will be surprised to learn of the close institutional ties between Oxbridge and the country’s public schools, by which is meant fee-paying (what the Americans call private or prep schools).
Until 2018, the master (now head) of Trinity College, Cambridge, held a seat on the board of governors of the elite Westminster School – as he had since the 16th century. Half of Oxford’s colleges offered the greatest number of admission slots to graduates of Eton and Westminster.
The American Ivy League schools are equally “selective” – the term is in “scare quotes” because, as Bhopal and Myers show, “selectivity” is one of their trademark selling points. Other schools recruit, elite schools select. And what they select is a cohort that will reproduce the political-cultural ethos that prevails at these schools.
Through the middle of the last century, the Ivies openly ensured selectivity of their student body by admissions processes that were openly antisemitic (and, we should add, anti-black). The proper metric for being admitted was achieved by going to prep schools like Choate or Andover, bastions of upper-class Protestant culture – embodied in the Bush family.
Thus elite schools did, and to a large measure still do, translate financial wealth and social standing into coin that can be redeemed at Harvard, Yale or Princeton.
More recently, elite universities have adopted strategies to increase their diversity. In the US, this has largely been pushed by federal government policies (which the United States Supreme Court is widely expected to declare unconstitutional in the coming weeks). A further driver of increasing diversity on campus in both the US and the UK is the elite universities’ desire to attract international students.
Bhopal and Myers provide an impressive explanation of the role of international universities in the knowledge economy and how wealthy students from, for example, Nigeria, feel that they fit into the elite schools because they did their undergraduate work with many of the same classmates.
It is odd, therefore, that they do not discuss how universities have become reliant on the increased fees international students pay. While this might not matter to Harvard with its endowment of almost US$41 billion, it surely must to Cambridge, the endowment of which is less than a 10th of Harvard’s.
Who fits at elite universities?
Who does and who does not achieve ‘fit’ at the elite universities? Tony, a Briton now attending US2, does: he went to a private school in the UK and an elite UK university for his undergraduate degree, and his father went to US2. “I’m very at ease in this sort of environment,” he told the researchers. So does Bartholomew, also a British graduate student who did his undergraduate degree at UK2 where he is now doing his graduate work.
Betty, an American at US1, explains why she fits: “If you come from a background where your parents are professors or work in top professions, that’s what you strive for.” Even as they recognised their privilege, each of these students claimed it was their own habitus that got them where they are.
Martin, an American whose father is a successful film producer and whose mother “comes from money” was cruder. A student at US1, he admitted there are inequities in the world – before sloughing them off. “If you were from Bangladesh now or Somalia, I don’t think the inequalities at US1 would be that troubling. You might just want some rice or lentils on your table.”
Keira, who hails from a small Scottish village and a working-class background, credits her success to teachers who believed in her and support from her school. Living in a liminal space, one that she profits and will profit from but one she is critical of, she told the interviewers of her cohort at UK1: “You can see their privilege – it bleeds down – it never stops for them; they use [it] in every way and it starts way back when they’re at [private] school … It’s part of their entitlement that they’ve grown up with.”
It was left to Ralf, the son of a nurse and director of public health in a district near US1 – and one who had not gone to an elite university for his undergraduate degree – to say that the graduate world at US1 is really different: “I had a personal librarian assigned to me.”
A key word in Bhopal and Myers analysis is “spaces”, which serves both as an intellectual construct (roughly, the “idea of the university”), campus places, such as dining halls, and the arena of social interaction.
It is this last meaning that Keira uses when, in the chapter titled “Degrees of Entitlement”, she says: “It’s difficult for me to know how to navigate these elite spaces. It’s not something I’m used to. It’s not just the academic spaces; it’s the social spaces. There is the pressure to do well all the time. There is the pressure to excel [recall, she comes from a working-class Scottish background] and that’s not always possible. I have feelings of imposter syndrome all the time.”
(In the case of universities, “imposter syndrome” occurs when a student feels she or he is out of place because she or he is the only female, female of colour or male of colour in a class – especially in fields such as physics, for which, because of the legacy of unequal education in America, there are very few role models.)
Sarah, a Latina, who relied on scholarships and savings from her working-class family to pay for graduate school at US1, also spoke of imposter syndrome and of having learned to comport herself to fit in.
“Outwardly I could be rich and middle class. Nobody would need to know about my background. They would know because I am here, I am worthy of being here. So, I can hide that I am poor and working class and that my parents have saved for years for my education and have gotten into debt because they want me to do well … It’s a big deal for me being here.
“I know as immigrants my parents came here with nothing – but they want so much more for us. I could never go back home and tell my parents I am struggling. That would mean I have failed and let them down.”
‘Fitting in’ has not changed much since George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion more than a century ago or when Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews starred in My Fair Lady six decades ago. As Eliza Doolittle learned, fitting in, being posh, is signalled by what you wear, how you hold yourself and by your accent, which Keira pointed out when discussing hierarchies.
“Getting here is hard enough, but once you get here you would think you were on a level playing field, but it doesn’t work like that. There are hierarchies of difference based on your accent and what school you went to before you came here. All the posh privately educated students know each other because they went to the same schools. So, they have certain ways of behaving, doing and being.”
Other students reported being “laughed at” because of their accents. The experience of Hanna, a Malayan student at UK2, who also reported experiencing racism against her for being a Muslim woman, was, Bhopal and Myers write, “notable because she made a direct link between the mockery of her language and how this was interpreted as a sign she was not as intellectually capable as other students”.
Hanna also reported that her professors disparaged what we might term the “intellectual accent” of her work. In an essay on oppression of women in Malaya that focused on the impact of wearing the hijab, she used works by writers from the Middle East and writers of colour. Her professor “told [her] off”, saying Hanna was biased and that she should have used Western feminists to make her arguments. “So to me, that said the way you write and what you include is biased towards white scholarship.”
Even though Yvonne, an international student from China studying at UK2 played Eliza Doolittle and learned to speak English “like the English”, she didn’t get Julie Andrews’ makeover. Thus, her clothing choices, the smart outfits of law students at elite Chinese universities, she told the researchers, engendered “stares as if I was an alien”.
Echoes of critical race theory
From critical race theorists, Bhopal and Myers take several ideas, including the notion that ‘whiteness’ is a performance that changes over time, as they show by reference to the Irish, Italians, Slavs and Jews in the United States, who became ‘white’ when the needs of America’s dominant society needed them to be ‘white’.
As she did when she responded “bullshit” to whether UK2 was a meritocracy, and then explained that many in her cohort were at UK2 because of their privileged position in British society, Femi, a black British Nigerian from a working-class background, used the strongest language to describe what happens when you do not perform on the university stage according to expected forms of whiteness.
“There are different ways in which racism takes place. I was the only black person on my course and was made to feel different by others, but also felt different myself. When the lecturer said something about black people, everyone would turn and look at me and expect me to be the expert.
“From the students, it’s the posh, white, middle-class UK2 boys who dominate – they totally ignore you because you are not like them. They treat you [as if] and let you know you are not one of them. They have all been to the same private schools and already know each other before they come to UK2. It really is like an old boys’ club.”
Femi’s experience differs in an important way from that of Nigerian international students.
“Here at UK2, they try and portray diversity and inclusion, but the black students here just portray eliteness. Ninety percent of the black students here are from Nigeria, and they went to international private schools; they are not British Nigerian. They come from different backgrounds and are just as privileged as the white, posh, privately educated students. UK2 perpetuates privilege not equality and the black international students perpetuate that privilege.”
At US1, Nema, a working-class black student brought up by a single mother, reported that after the election of Donald Trump as US president, social conditions deteriorated. She found herself having to be less outspoken in her support of affirmative action. In other words, she began self-censoring when her white (usually male) classmates attacked affirmative action and, by implication, her presence at US1, which they simply assumed was due to what the British call box checking.
These sorts of micro-aggressions were experienced by almost all of the students of colour. And, though some of the wealthy black students reported that they were friends with white students, the basis of these friendships is performative in the sense that it focuses on specific public actions, usually involving sports, that are meaningless while at the same time bespeaking a shared economic status.
As Edward, an African American student at US1 who took his BA at another Ivy League college and whose parents are professionals, told researchers, while he identifies with other African Americans, he feels more at home with white students who came up through the same educational and social matrix as he did.
“They have the same sort of experiences I have, the same interests and so we bond. We play the same sports and we do the same sort of things. I don’t think that they are white and I am black; they are just my friends.”
Bhopal and Myers do not let Edward off easily. Rather, they challenge his purported colour-blind perspective. Specifically, they note that he filters “race” out of the equation by focusing on “shared interests” as though they were neutral social products. Edward ignores the fact that each shared interest is an epiphenomenon, “defined within white forms of capital, including prior access to wealth; as opposed to black forms of capital associated with poverty”.
Edward and Tom (and other black middle-class students) use wealth and their middle-class tastes to distinguish themselves from black working-class students.
This same analysis applies to Andre, a mixed heritage (black/white) student at US2, who comes from a middle-class background, whose father also went to US2 and who said baldly: “I don’t choose my friends because of their racial background. I choose them because we have things in common. They just happen to be white.”
‘Grabbing the main chance’
Bhopal and Myers’ analysis shows that beneath the movie-set quality of the manicured lawns of these four campuses is a common social horizon that is riven by racial and class divides. Not surprisingly, this divide extends to what these graduate students intend to do after graduation –the majority of the white and wealthy students of colour are fairly chomping at the bit to become investment bankers, high-priced lawyers and the like.
This last point is important, and not only because it circles back to their discussion in the first part of the book about the commodification of higher education and the brand of these elite schools in the ecosystem of global education economics.
It is important, also, because it shows that for many graduate students at elite schools, the “life of the mind” matters much less than what in North America goes by the phrase “grabbing the main chance”.
Thus do Bhopal and Myers provide qualitative (and to a certain extent, quantitative) evidence to support Bourdieu’s argument that the function of the university is to replicate the economic, political, social and epistemic assu