Two years ago, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s book "The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better" dealt a blow to neoliberal economics and neo-conservative politics. After three decades of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory, the privileged believed that equality could not work. However, Pickett and Wilkinson used graphs and charts to convincingly demonstrate that not only could equality work, but it did work. More equal societies were not only fairer but more efficient and everyone, including the rich, did better. Despite this, the message of equality has faced resistance for two reasons.
The first reason is that wealth generation, growth, and efficiency were merely a cover story. Instead of being a necessary evil, inequality is the end goal to maintain power, privilege, and hierarchy. The second reason may be that, after Thatcher and Blair, acceptance of inequality has become a mindset that is difficult to escape. It has seeped into our collective consciousness and created a new vocabulary in higher education. Terms like "top" universities, "world-class" research, and "top" students imply a hierarchy that did not exist before.
While there has always been a pecking order of universities, recent methodologies produce uncritical acceptance of league tables that promote the "right" result. This has led to an enthusiasm for inequality that has its funny side. Universities will confidently assert they are in the "top 10" positions, and others aspire to be there in the near future. The main attraction of such clubs as the Russell Group (of "top" universities) is that they keep other people out, rather than because of what happens inside them.
However, this enthusiasm for inequality in higher education has a darker side. Firstly, inequality featherbeds the already fortunate. People are expected to believe that one university is better than another simply because of its membership in the Russell Group. Secondly, this enthusiasm undermines the solidarity of higher education, which is a source of strength according to Pickett and Wilkinson. Enthusiasm for inequality allows politicians and Treasury cost cutters to divide and rule. It is remarkable that the armed services, despite being divided into three warring branches, work together better than universities.
The efficiency, success, and strength of higher education depend on habits of solidarity. The standard of degrees is maintained by a cat’s cradle of external examiners, and the quality of research and publications relies on academic referees. Lectures and seminars also depend on the culture of academic altruism. However, there is already evidence of the breakdown of these habits of solidarity. Universities are beginning to choose only referees from their own group on appointment or promotion committees or as external examiners. If these habits become entrenched, everyone will be a loser, and universities may realize too late that people are more willing to go the extra mile for the common good than they are for corporate bosses in a Brave New World higher education market.