Monday, 13 February 2012

University Challenge

The debate about the social make-up of university populations has been doing the rounds since before I  started at university, back in the last millenium. It is still missing the point. The case for the prosecution seems as simple as those who propose it: Rich kids who go to expensive schools make up 7% of the school population but they take up about 50% of the university places. Therefore universities are failing children from poorer backgrounds.

A bulletproof argument; as long as you exchange the word 'universities' for 'state schools'.

For years the darlings of the left (often Oxbridge-educated following either private or grammar schooling) have lambasted universities, the Russell Group especially and in particular Oxbridge. They accuse them of snobbery, of elitism, of social and financial exclusion. In their eyes the universities are entirely to blame for the underrepresentation of those schooled by the state (and supposedly therefore poor and underprivileged) at university.

It appears it has never crossed the minds of these people, like Prof Les Ebdon (Vince Cable's proposed candidate for the Office of Fair Access), that the raw product might not be up to scratch. It never occurred to them that the reason the 7% do so well is that their school system works and that the one schooling the 93% doesn't. They don't suppose that it might be the fault of those failing to adequately prepare students for university application rather than those whose job it is to judge the relative strengths of all candidates for the process.

Now call me a bluff old traditionalist, but I think this is rather arse about face. If a school turns out badly educated kids after years in charge of their tutelage, I imagine they have a pretty high degree of accountability for that failing. If they tested those children on day 1 of kindergarten and found they weren't all that sharp, I think it would be rather unfair to blame the school. They haven't been responsible for the standard of education up until that point - the parents have. By the same token, if there is a poor education standard among graduates, the universities certainly take some of the blame. Why anyone thinks that the failings of those applying to those universities could ever be their fault is genuinely beyond me.

It all smacks of the politics of class envy. The uncomfortable truth is that the state system has failed, despite billions of pounds of investment, to replicate the success of the private or grammar systems. It's a failing that belongs to both major parties. Unfortunately, neither has any particularly good ideas about how to go about fixing it, nor any real desire to let it be known this is really all the fault of those in charge of the system. It is far easier, especially today where the court of public opinion rides roughshod over contracts, facts, or just plain common sense, to shift the blame.

It is the easy course to blame the wealthy parents who selfishly try to do the best for their children - whether by paying for a good education or by buying a house in a catchment area for a good grammar school. It is easy to accuse the snobbish (presumably because the bricks are old) universities for failing to attract disadvantaged applicants. The statistics don't look good - but only because we don't look at them in detail; lies, damn lies and all that...

Universities should not be instruments of social engineering. They can though, use their discretion to mitigate against lower academic results where intellectual promise is evident but good schooling is not. And they do. Actually bother yourself to investigate what universities now do to try to better understand who the best applicants are. The key though, is the word 'best'. Yes they have leeway to accept those who have attained lower grades and regularly do, but only when they think that student is better than one with higher grades and good schooling.

Enormous amounts of time, money and effort goes into attracting university applications from all walks of life. Very intelligent people then spend a long time deliberating over which applicants are the best and should be offered places. Ultimately though, for all the mitigation and for all the effort to encourage applications from poorer areas of society, their job is to take the best. In many cases the state has simply put them at such a disadvantage by delivering a desperately inferior level of education that they will be unable to make the grade. This is why we don't have 93% state-educated university populations.

The only thing penalties for missing quotas can do is financially punish blameless universities for the failure of schools or force them to avoid that cost by admitting worse candidates. The outcome is all downside for tertiary education and for this country. Doctoring the numbers as enforcing quotas will do does everyone a disservice as the increased number at university from poorer backgrounds will just mask the continued failing of the state system. Fighting quotas and getting the public to understand where the blame lies for the public/private imbalance in their populations; this is the great University Challenge.

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