The Contemporary and Well-Embedded Irks Preventing Sustainability Within the British Higher Education System | Farrah Barber

This piece is going to consciously adopt two lines of thought- both of which follow issues that I deem to plague the broaching of the discussion regarding the Sustainable Development Goals at universities in the United Kingdom. Initially, I shall discuss the unavoidable and frustratingly omniscient matter that is Brexit. My issues with Brexit are frankly too far reaching to cover in this piece alone, but I shall scratch the surface of why it’s hindering the promotion of the SDGs as pillars of university governance. Next, I shall dance with a more sinister partner- the harrowingly well entrenched class system that marred, and continues to prohibit, the focus on SDGs at universities in the United Kingdom. I shall add comparisons where applicable regarding Asia, yet as my knowledge in this area is limited, I don’t wish to incorrectly comment on the culture nor education system of a region I’m not fully aware of.

Frustration and ambiguity- two words near synonymous with the United Kingdom today. I likely needn’t explain why for it seems that we’ve tumbled into an abyss of political tumult and international embarrassment with no apparent guiding light to redirect our misbegotten fate. The ephemera of Theresa May’s deal struck with European leaders, entertained by the likes of myself not for its shoddy content but it’s chance to pluck my country from a state of disarray, became clear as she requests extension upon extension. What this piece wants to portray is how upsetting it is to be an optimistic young person in the United Kingdom today, how our politics continues to polarize and distract. There must be respite to allow us to return to other important things. Most notably, the Sustainable Development Goals.

The reason for my frustrations with Brexit span far further than the inadequacy of the people in charge of navigating it and the fact that the decision of the UK to leave doesn’t align with my own views. My anguish comes from the fact that it’s been such a hindrance to progress at almost every level in almost every arena. It has served as a distraction for not only politicians, but everybody. Tertiary education in the United Kingdom is by no means an exception. Brexit has proven to be an elephant in almost every classroom at UK universities, likely filled with a diverse range of nationalities and cultures. It feels that all conversation has centered around the mess of the Brexit campaigns, the sorrow felt at the referendum result by many young people, and the aftermath of chaos. Less has been said over the past two and a half years about other pressing issues. Universities are like the rest of us, they’re being cast behind the veil of uncertainty that cloaks the UK.

The United Kingdom remains amidst a political whirlwind, much as it has since 24 June 2016. For nearly three years, my country has been plagued by a caste of confusion and polarization. For nearly three years, the merry band of politicians who should, for young people especially, be the manifestation of security and reassurance, of challenge and progression- have appeared as little more than a tribe of petty juveniles. The accepted estimate of under 24-year old’s that voted to Remain in that decisive referendum was 73%, and the frustration that we have felt collectively has been wide-spread and well documented. Naturally this is not that case for all young people, with some of the most formidable Brexiteers hailing from the youth. However, to most young people and university students, drowning in indecipherable jargon and intentionally convoluted rhetoric, we power forth on our pursuit of clarity.

I shall now begin my assessment of the nature of higher education generally in the UK. From the outset I must make clear my views on university education in my country for they will almost definitely going shade this piece with a cynical hue. In the UK, regardless of time and social progress, we continue to adopt a cripplingly well embedded class system that has ran rampant for centuries. Though many are conscious to dispel stereotypes and feed the evolution of the social class system, it continues to prevail. A mere 7% of the UK population attended a fee-paying ‘public’ school, yet they occupy 42% of places at the most elite universities. Assuming that these universities are likely to educate the next generation of political leaders, what does this say for representation? For real world solutions, to real world problems, experienced by real people? What I find so interesting here is when it is set against the prevailing education system in Asia, particularly China. The concept of students all participating in a state-run system, with all students competing for scholarships, seems far more equitable. Naturally, this system is not without its flaws. It should be continually recognized that suicide rates amongst young people in South Korea, Singapore and China being higher than average- with the justification oftentimes being the enormity of the pressure of university education.

The Sustainable Development Goals envelop the notion of real-world problems with a tone of advocacy and optimism. As this piece shall focus on the UK, I shall draw your eye to some rather stark statistics that continue to take even Brits by surprise. At present, around 4.2 million children live in relative poverty in our country. More than one in five of the UK population lives in poverty. 8.2% of adults living in poverty at present are heavily restricted by their circumstances, and 7% of the total UK population lives in absolute poverty, with 24% of these being from lone parent families.1

My issue lies in the fact that these statistics, rather stark and surprising in nature, are likely not going to be broached by those that have endured the trials and tribulations of being in poverty. The access to quality education is oftentimes reserved for those with the correct family name, from the correct schools, with the free time to pursue academia and work experience rather than a job to support themselves and their families. A quality university education in the UK remains largely inaccessible for many- thus how can the Sustainable Development Goals be truly assessed by people that have likely never experienced the hardship? My issue here is the diversity that is simply lacking in the highest levels of our education system. However, when I do compare this with my understanding of classism in Asia- I don’t see a tremendous disparity. I have been led to believe that the Confucian system of social order and pallial respect should prevail in order to maintain civility. Society as a whole must be prioritized above the individual level. It doesn’t strike me necessarily that the issue of little diversity is not present in Asian universities, either.

What cannot be in doubt however is the durability of our university education system. From the outset and within, the UK bears an unshaken ability to reign amongst the best of the best. The elitism that prevails isn’t universally a flaw, and students and professors alike are often given time to think about solving problems on a wider scale. The capacity for research at universities in the UK permits insights into sustainability in all aspects, the age and prowess of the institutions allows for meaningful and lasting relationships across the world and this facilitation of co-operation is undeniably useful in achieving global aims. There is huge amounts of academic innovation and progress, and start-ups like Empower Energy from the University of Oxford are proof that elitism at the country’s best universities isn’t always for the good of the elite- some of the smartest people in the UK are working to solve global problems on an international scale.

The elitism in UK universities is innocuous enough on a superficial level. The best students, from the best schools and in such achieving the best grades, attend the best universities. It makes sense. However, this piece has served to exemplify the nuances of such an outlook. I hope to exemplify that when it comes to working toward the Sustainable Development Goals, the UK would benefit from diversity in every aspect. Young people not gifted with the privilege of a certain surname nor access to a high tier public school have a lot to offer to the progress of working toward the SDGs, for they have a capacity for empathy unparalleled by others. Whether such a sentiment prevails in the Asia is unclear to myself, for I have no personal experience of the Asian university system. Yet what we require globally is a wide reaching, inclusive, comprehensive approach to solving the problems that the SDGs cast light upon. 



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