If ever there was a word that needed reclaiming from the faux culture wars stoked by right-wing media machines, lost and wounded in an online no-man’s land of internecine strife, it is “elite”.
Once upon a time, to be elite was something to aspire to. To be the best of the best. At the apex. A sentiment brashly celebrated in “Top Gun” with its 80s power chords and all-action aerobatics, or by the dizzying intellect of the protagonists in “The West Wing”.
It’s still ok to be an elite athlete, or an elite soldier. But it’s no longer ok to be an elite intellectual.
That growing disdain for education crystallised in the UK Brexit referendum when politician Michael Gove stated, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”. No matter how he tried to backtrack or reframe it afterwards, the original interpretation and undoubtedly the intended one cut through because it was so clearly in step with the rest of the Vote Leave campaign’s tactics: a rejection of fact-based experience, and the tarring of intellectuals (and more broadly, the “metropolitan elite”) as being indifferent to and at odds with the needs of “the people”.
Intellectuals invariably become the targets of right-wing movements (witness Myanmar for just the latest example) because they embody a spirit of free enquiry, and that kind of freedom is one that the current crop of right-wing nationalist movements abhor. Science in particular tends to find itself in the crosshairs, as its appeals are based on facts and data rather than opinion, rhetoric, and violence – an inherently anti-authoritarian stance, thrown into sharp relief by the former Trump administration’s repeated clashes with and attempts to muzzle its scientific advisors.
The tragic irony of this hostility towards experts, intellectuals, and academics of all disciplines is that rather than being members of a moneyed caste, they so often exemplify the kind of hopes and aspirations that right-wing demagogues pretend to champion. Education, in spirit, has always been about inclusivity, empowerment, broadening opportunities, bettering society. It’s about realising your potential, transcending your background, and becoming as good as you can be – maybe becoming the best of the best. But those same opportunities to reach full academic potential are being moved farther and farther from reach.
Eye-watering tuition fees now make an elite education the preserve of those that can afford it, rather than those who are most able. A biology degree at Cambridge University for an international student now costs over 100,000 GBP. At such a price, this can no longer be considered an elite education; rather, it is an exclusive education. The cachet of the degree primarily comes not from the attainment it suggests, but the stamp of exclusivity in possessing it.
And this exclusive access, this skewing of the system towards the financial haves at the expense of the have-nots is percolating farther downward as the countries that have rebranded their students as customers now see tuition fees rise and rise. A system in which smart people have to weigh up the decision of whether or not to go to university, whether or not to take a higher degree – based solely on financial matters rather than ability – is a system that is handicapping society at large. It is placing the opportunity for higher education not in the hands of the best, but in the hands of those that can afford it.
Science publishing has long been heading in the same direction. Ever since Ben Lewin pioneered the prestige publishing concept, the journal in which work is published has become perceived by many to be more significant than the scientific merit of the work itself. The farcical adulation of the most successful journals is now allowing them to cynically exploit this status, proliferating journal titles under the same banner (Cell Press and Nature Publishing Group being arguably the worst brand-usage offenders) while charging ever more for the honour of publishing there. Like tuition fees, this is already leading to a system in which certain journals are off-limits to the less financially well-off.
Just as with tuition fees, the consequences will cascade onwards and downwards. If merit is determined based on where work is published (and despite the best efforts of DORA, eLife, and others, things are not changing fast enough), then this will create an allegedly merit-based setup that is actually an expression of financial privilege. The advent of higher publication fees will simply create an exclusive sphere where well-funded labs can afford to pay exorbitant costs, while less well-funded ones (predominantly junior, of course) will end up looking less accomplished. Scientists are already dealing with another feature of this trend with the grotesque spectacle of research that’s been funded by taxpayers being shut off behind paywalls, barring access to institutions that cannot afford or refuse to pay the subscription fees.
The route this trend takes is an unsightly one, and it’s already been trodden by society at large. Just as the wealthiest echelon of society has apparently unshackled itself from the other tiers, a similar phenomenon could easily manifest itself in academia. Funding will be apportioned in a supposedly merit-based system that is predicated on access to certain publication outlets which are themselves off-limits to those unable to pay. In a weird regression to the days when science was funded by patronage, we’re now also seeing billionaires supply more and more of the research dollars – the Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation, the Allen Brain Institute – but this is largesse made possible by the system disproportionately rewarding those who are already wealthy. Money that could be collected as tax and invested by citizens is instead disbursed from on high at the whims of these latterday nabobs.
The Matthew Effect will strengthen, and excellence will be cosily defined in terms that are limited to those with the ample resources to pay: almost free to those that can afford it, very expensive for those that can’t.
Will this trouble those that profit from the system? Unlikely. The ability to afford eye-watering publication fees will be a way of signalling exclusivity, just like a degree from an exclusive institution. And make no mistake, in science at least, there’s seldom anything undeserving about the people who doing well from the status quo. They are smart, hard-working, capable, and fully deserve the benefits that come their way. The problem is that they by no means possess a monopoly on those traits, and are often only in the enviable positions they enjoy through strokes of luck that singled them out from their equally-deserving peers.
In “Top Gun”, Tom Cruise questions only how good he is, not whether he can afford to attend the elite flying school. The society which provides equality of opportunity is the one which will most efficiently convert its citizens’ potential into success – a society that promotes and celebrates elite performance, but is inclusive.