Thursday, 14 April 2011

Quote Unquota

Well seeing as we are on the subject of universities, I shall let you all know something else that grips me. In case anyone was thinking I blindly sign up to whatever policy comes out of Tory HQ I hope my criticism of their handling of university fees goes some was to dispelling your worries of bias. Today, a step further, with indeed an individual element. You see I cannot square myself as a little 'c' or big 'C' conservative with the total and utter tripe spouting forth from Clegeron, or Cameregg, whichever elision you prefer for the Dave and Nick show.

This week Cameron and then Clegg have lambasted Oxford University for their poor (or indeed "disgraceful") record on admitting black students. Now we can certainly spend some time on the foolish misuse of statistics Dave embarked upon by including only statistics for 'black-Caribbean' students in his statement about black students gaining places. Surely he must have seen from Opposition how damaging misuse of a statistic can be, especially when it is so easy to prove a deception. It was one of Labour's favourite modus operandi - trot out some statistic that in isolation might justify the crap one is about to talk about or even the legislature that one is about to attempt to pass.

So, first smack on the wrist to naughty Dave. Not least it was foolish because if you are going to take his upside down view of who is responsible for low percentages of one group or other (compared to society's cross-section) attending top universities, only 41 children of any black parentage gaining an Oxford place would still be a headline low figure. But that is all immaterial, because the way he is going about this is desperately foolish in its leftwards leanings.

Quite how you can think the number of students good enough to attend a certain university is down to said university is beyond me; for that is the problem. If you have been to pretty much any university in the past 15 years (and it is probably more true of Oxford than of most others), you will see the enormous amount of time, effort and money that goes into encouraging poorer students to apply. That though, is pretty much where the university's responsibility ends.

Certainly it has to conduct a thorough assessment on who is the most gifted and would benefit the most from a university education (and who would benefit the country the most by said education). To do this it will of course take into account many things, and those factors won't be exclusively to do with money. There are poor children on bursaries at private schools, there are rich children whose parents do not pay for their education. We do not all fall into the rich/poor circles of the Venn diagram and those circles only - unique snowflake and all that.

This is where we trust our institutions to use their not inconsiderable intelligence to differentiate between grades and potential, though that is not to say they don't very often go hand in hand (On a side note too often the liberal media and politicians seem to think if you go to a good school, you are given good grades on a plate. Yes there is an opportunity, but just that. It takes brains and a lot of hard work to realise that potential). I truly believe this selection process is happening. What is more, given the choice of letting non-political academics make these decisions or two-a-penny politicians after cheap points in sound-bytes, I'd go with Professor Plum every day of the week and twice on Sundays. After doing all this, the university can and need do no more.

The problem is clearly that the state is failing to produce the raw material. Not enough quality is getting to the doors of the Russell Group. To blame them for not admitting people not good enough is farcical. Oxford and Cambridge work. They are still world class institutions. This suggests they might be doing something right. Likewise, most private schools seem to have a pretty firm grip on things - if they don't, people vote with their feet and take their money elsewhere. Most at state school do not have this luxury. To blame the university they fail to get into for their lack of schooling is ludicrous though, and does them a great disservice in shifting the focus from where it should be - namely raising the standards of state schooling to somewhere nearer that of private schooling, level or beyond.

The even more worrying leftist tosh, Clegg dribbled out yesterday. He essentially threatened Oxford and by extension all other universities of withdrawal of funding if they didn't ensure more students from poorer backgrounds were admitted. Here are his actual words: "if you want to continue to get support from the taxpayer to educate our young people, you've got to make sure that British society is better reflected in the people you take into the university in the first place." Some pretty important language to pick up on there, and some statistical nonsense.

First let's deal with the easy bit - yet again totally rubbish statistics; the "better reflected" part. Last year 22% of Oxford's student population were from ethnic minority backgrounds. This compares to about 10% nationally. Certainly there are individual ethnicities who do better than others and those who do poorly. However, there are many mitigating factors, not least the majority arts bent at Oxford and the oversubscription of many of the courses most popular among ethnic minorities. For an excellent review of this topic from January, read this article from the Cherwell, a student paper in Oxford (here). So, at double the national average, not desperately racist, and more than a better reflection one might think; unless we're going to ask Nick Griffin to point out how a lower percentage of white people gain places at Oxford than there is in the national cross-section. So let's steer clear of that one, eh?

Second up, the language Clegg used was the language of quotas. This misguided attempt at two wrongs making a right has long been championed by the left. Make up for deficiencies in some system or other, glossing over the cracks by simply adjusting the end product. Problem with not enough women in Parliament? Do what Harperson wants and have quotas based on the general population. Don't worry about trying to deal with institutionalised sexism, just alter the picture at the end. Don't worry about using a proportion based on full time workers who take no time off for pregnancy (which goes a long way to explaining some of the gender gap in top flight business, politics etc), go straight for 50:50. Because that is the thing about quota politics. Not only is it totally morally bankrupt as a policy, but each quota is invariably based on something utterly incomparable. It works on the exclusionist, discriminatory principle it is supposedly meant to be ousting.

I don't like agreeing with Simon Heffer, he's a little too far right for my liking, but his article (here) yesterday was spot on regarding this quota setting. Clegg is totally wrong when he says universities have "got to make sure" society mirrors their intake. All they have to ensure is a fair admissions policy and the pursuit of academic excellence. It is up to Clegg and Co to deal with the standard of student applying to university, Oxford or otherwise. They need to forget this quota nonsense and realise that it is for the Government to try to give the opportunities to the poorer children to exploit their potential. Once everyone has done that, let the chips fall where they may.

This has been dangerous and foolish talk from a Coalition I had high hopes for concerning education. I thought they understood the way to deal with high achievers in the private sector doing better than poorer counterparts was not to criticise them, legislate against them or try to drag them down (or as Labour called it "education, education, education). It is to give them a bloody good run for their money by raising the standards of the state sector.

Hopefully Michael Gove can step in and rescue this horribly backwards thinking that seems to have come out of nowhere with some real direction in primary and secondary education. That is the key to it all - education, and not higher education, because unfortunately for most, by then it is too late. Cameron needs to grip this alarming leftist lurch of his, or else he may find his abused Conservative partners bring about an end to this Coalition rather than the minority Lib Dem partners he seems to be more than willing to accommodate on almost every issue. For everyone's sake let us hope this is merely part of the courting procedure that he doesn't intend to carry through to the marriage. Like buying flowers.

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