The way we talk about subjects and universities has changed dramatically over the last few years, and not for the better. The English Bacc with its favoured GCSE subjects has led to a secondary school subject hierarchy which appears to downgrade sociology, media, visual and performing arts amongst others. At A-level, the notion of ‘facilitating’ subjects, as defined by the Russell Group in their ‘Informed Choices’ document, has been interpreted as implying a lower status for a whole swathe of subjects such as psychology, sociology, law, media, visual and performing arts and many others which are widely valued by universities including those in the Russell Group. It is also fairly dismissive of vocational courses which we know are a good preparation for many degrees, including those at some Russell Group universities.
The introduction of these definitions may not have been intended to create a rift between subjects or discourage students from making choices which suit them but there is no doubt that this is what has happened. The change in language has been part of the creation of new divisions and new benchmarks of success and creates new pressures on young people who are trying to do what is best.
This tendency is consistent with the increased marketization of educational opportunities, particularly post-16. If a good education is a scarce commodity, it’s clearly important to be able to identify what the most valued type of education is and where it is being offered. We need a clear hierarchy of subjects and providers so that we can all compete for the limited opportunities and understand where we fit in. At a time of high youth unemployment, these hierarchies offer new barriers to the labour market and new ways to select the lucky few who can access ‘good’ jobs. Needless to say, this is the antithesis of a broad, inclusive education which offers good opportunities for all.
In daily use, the language designed for one purpose is soon distorted and corrupted and this only makes things worse: facilitating subjects become ‘hard’ subjects, ‘valued’ subjects or ‘better’ subjects and Russell Group universities become ‘good’ universities, ‘top’ universities or ‘best’ universities. The government has chosen to buy in to the Russell Group definition of facilitating subjects in their own performance tables with a measure of students achieving at least AAB in at least 2 facilitating subjects. Even Ofsted with all their objectivity have bought into the language and regularly use ‘prestigious’ as a descriptor for more selective universities.
If we accept these dichotomies, it’s inevitable that we will slip into describing the non-facilitating subjects as ‘easy’ or ‘less valued’ and non-Russell group universities as ‘lesser’ or ‘second rank’. Why not go all the way and simply reverse the adjectives; non-facilitating subjects are downright ‘hindering’ and non-Russell group institutions simply ‘bad’? Such a dichotomous approach to anything as complex and diverse as the organisation of subject knowledge or universities is clearly a ridiculous oversimplification and does nothing to help students make important choices about their education.
We know that A-level achievement correlates to prior GCSE achievement and that, other things being equal, some subjects are harder to pass or to achieve high grades in, with Physics at one end and Media Studies at the other. However, subjects are not equal. The knowledge and skill sets required for different subjects are qualitatively different; this is in the nature of different fields of study.
If, for instance, we feel there is a need to recalibrate A-level Media Studies so that it is broadly comparable to A-level Physics in its challenge and demand, we should review the Media Studies specification rather than continue to talk it down and describe it as ‘easier’. And if A-level Law really isn’t a great preparation for undergraduate Law studies, we should design a specification which does the job better rather than denigrating the subject.
Equally, we should use descriptors for our universities which do justice to the full range of what they offer their communities rather than perpetuate the simplistic and inaccurate labels which tell us nothing of any use.
Perhaps what is needed is a campaign led by professors of ‘non-facilitating’ subjects in Russell Group universities to make the point that there’s nothing intrinsically less rigorous or difficult about the academic study of Art, Media, Law, Psychology, Sociology etc. “Top hindering uni profs” calling for subject and institutional parity. I’d certainly be cheering them on!