Time to make the myth of meritocracy satire again

Education needs to end the “corrosive culture” of vast student debt and stop servicing league tables and competitive metrics which force universities and staff to compete rather than collaborate.

That was one of the key messages from Jo Littler, professor of social analysis and cultural politics and director of the Gender and Sexualities Research Centre at City, University of London, United Kingdom, in the Worldviews 2020 lecture on “The Myth of Meritocracy: From satire to social inequality” on 18 September.

The Worldviews lecture is organised annually by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. University World News is a media partner.

Professor Littler argued that meritocracy had been “used and abused” for decades to justify rapidly increasing economic inequality and reminded her online audience that the term started as “a satirical take on social mobility” in the 1950s but has now become “embedded at the heart of our economic, social, cultural and academic institutions in a way that obscures the role meritocracy plays in social exclusion”.

From being animated in popular culture with the likes of TV shows such as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, it is held up as the ideal by politicians “ranging from social liberals Obama and Trudeau to national authoritarians like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and those with a religious inflection like Joe Biden, who recently tweeted: “Everyone should be given the opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them.”

Central to higher education

Littler said meritocracy is central to higher education – with education seen as providing many rungs of the ladder of opportunity that we can climb up regardless of social position “if we work hard enough to activate our talent”.

Despite becoming normalised, it has been roundly satirised recently in higher education circles for producing a relentless rise of league tables and competitive metrics “which force universities and staff to compete rather than collaborate”.

Littler said it was time “to reverse the trend of an exploited army of lecturers on temporary contracts” and stop overworking lecturers by ending the audit culture and ending “the corrosive culture” of vast student debt.

“This means stopping the processes of marketising and privatisation, reversing those processes and bringing accommodation and services back in-house through in-sourcing.

“It also requires raising awareness of the history of cooperative education and its use in the present; and linking with activity across the wider sector to end the corporate destruction of education. Providing education that is free at the point of use and sharing the wealth.”

Unequal education system

Littler pointed to abuses over admissions in recent years at some universities in the United States to favour the children of the elite and how the onus is placed on students to rise up through an unequal education system rather than to share the resources of that system more equitably.

“We can see how such pressure plays out in the case of Oxbridge and the Ivy League where the best way to succeed works to serve the already ultra-privileged.

“It is noticeable that hedge funds and private equity billionaires, who are in effect driving the financial crisis and inequality, have been the largest donors to these institutions which re-entrenches the notion that we should have an ever-increasing hierarchical system in which the wealthy are just given more and more,” she argued.

“In the UK you see how large universities have developed over the last 20 years different kinds of segregated accommodation systems, which have become profoundly classed. So, you have blocks for the ultra-rich, then you have more modest blocks for the middle class and students staying at home if they can’t afford either.

“So, marketisation has come to mean new forms of social segregation.”

Working-class students are increasing their debts while being instructed to aspire to escape their communities, rather than governments being instructed to make their communities better, she said.

“So, as inequality soars, an increasing number of people can see the dream of meritocracy is further out of reach, leading to widespread disillusionment with the meritocratic dream,” said Littler, who urged her audience to say ‘No’ to the myth of meritocracy and make meritocracy satire again.

‘Very tenacious’

Littler accepted that meritocracy had proved to be “very tenacious because it does undoubtedly contain vivid elements of fairness and pits the idea of social mobility against older forms of unfairly inherited privilege”.

But despite having what she described as “grains of truth” about everyone having the right to a chance to progress, it has been “used alongside a sack-load of mystification” which has been actively mobilised by a plutocracy to extend their own interests and power.

Littler said: “Since the 1980s meritocracy has become the cultural alibi of the power grabbers of contemporary neoliberal capitalism.”

With the world’s 2,000 billionaires now having more wealth than 4.6 billion people, the idea that a meritocratic system somehow involves a level playing field is a fiction that serves the best interests of an elite, said Littler.

Among her key objections to meritocracy were:

• Vastly unequal rewards for different jobs, with privilege passed on, so no level playing field to start with.

• Competitive individualistic ladder system of social mobility which promises opportunity while fostering social division.

• Assumption that intelligence is inborn.

• Hierarchical ranking of status and certain professions, which has been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic – with huge economic value given to socially useless jobs in contrast to jobs that sustain our lives like care working or garbage collection.

• The myth that meritocracy plays itself in actually expanding economic and social inequality.

From abuse to positive idea

So, from being a term of abuse, with its first recorded use by the British industrial sociologist and socialist Alan Fox in 1956, Littler said meritocracy became “reconfigured as a positive idea as an engine of the knowledge economy”, adopted in the 1980s by a range of right-wing think tanks in the US and the UK “as a justification to reduce socialised forms of provision and to privatise services”.

From the UK, Littler gave the example of how it was deliberately employed by think tanks to try to privatise comprehensive schooling; a strategy, she said, that has succeeded to a significant degree with the expansion of academies.

“The word has done a U-turn in its common-sense value and has been deliberately and energetically presented as normal since the 1980s and the rise of the ‘Right’.

“It draws on the vitality of the 1960s social movements and the idea that everyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity, should have an equal chance, but it has been popularised as a neoliberal sales technique,” said Littler, with examples such as “the estate kid making it big to the boy who moved from ice cream sales to king star in Dragon’s Den”.

But Littler said such case studies often fail to explain how some of these entrepreneurs became incredibly successful by making money “on the back of privatised services or property”.

“If we want the reality of a level playing field, we need to popularise the ideas of redistribution and ending privatisation in favour of collective provision and creating social infrastructures of care, taxing the rich and introducing a maximum as well as a minimum wage, whilst prioritising environmental care so we make sure we have a living field in the first place,” she said.

Nic Mitchell is a journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities communication network, EUPRIO, and on his website. He provides English-language communication support on a freelance basis for European universities and specialist higher education media.