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University Admissions Should Be a Matter of Discrimination - Spectator Blogs

6 September 2012

5:39 PM

6 September 2012

5:39 PM

Cristina Odone begins her latest oh-woe-is-Britain post most amusingly:

Around the world, people have long envied Britain’s two institutions: the BBC and Oxbridge. Britons, however, (or some of them) are determined to destroy both. They are going about it in a brutal and obvious way, by lowering standards for both Auntie and the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The BBC abroad was a byword for beautifully written and brilliantly produced programmes such as “The World at War” and “Upstairs Downstairs”. But in its obsession with “diversity”, the Beeb has allowed standards to slip: comedies that aren’t funny (but don’t sound middle class) and reality shows that teach nothing but how temporal celebrity is, have taken over the schedule. Soon the BBC brand will be synonymous with Simon Cowell rather than David Attenborough, Laurence Friedman and literary classics. It will, in other words, be a joke.

I say this is amusing because, of the many programmes one might cite to praise the BBC, it’s droll to choose two that were made for ITV. Entertaining too to suggest the BBC “brand” will be synonymous with another ITV man, Simon Cowell at the expense of “literary classics” even as the corporation broadcasts a lavish, very fine, adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.

Unfortunately this might be the high-point of Ms Odone’s lament. She argues:

The same is going to happen to Oxbridge (and the other top universities), if the Coalition’s “access adviser” Prof Les Ebdon has his way.

[…] When children leave secondary schools without knowing how to read, write or do their sums, what can a university, even the best university, do with them? It is not fair to push an illiterate into Oxford instead of a brilliant middle-class child. It’s not fair, and it’s not good for anyone: not for the illiterate who will feel out of her depth; not for the university which will have compromised its standards and name; not for the economy which will have lost out on a potential talent.

Well! As it happens I also think the Office for Fair Access is a nonsense but not because I think it’s going to insist Oxford (or anyone else) accepts “illiterates” (what a smoothly unpleasant way of putting it, incidentally). Rather I think it’s unnecessary because Britain’s best universities are already – and have been for years – acutely conscious of the need to admit students from a wide range of backgrounds. Perhaps they could do more but no-one who knows anything about their activities can deny that Oxford and Cambridge, in common with other leading universities, run any number of “access” programmes. Indeed they already do pretty much all the things OFFA wants them to do.

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That means that, actually, there are plenty of occasions in which potential students from private schools lose out to pupils from comprehensives whom admissions tutors think have more potential even if they have thus far achieved poorer exam results. And that’s as it should be.

Universities should be free to admit whomever they like for whatever reasons they choose. That’s one reason for having an interview system rather than an admissions system overly-dependent upon examination results. Not every university can afford this, however.

Odone continues:

This is not to deny that British education is hopelessly divided (and divisive). On the one hand, we have world-renowned private schools, that have Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs vying to send their progeny to. They are the envy of the world’s elite. On the other, we have state schools so poor that Britain languishes towards the bottom of the pile in every international league table. Bridging this gulf is the big challenge before us – not diluting the quality of the best universities.

Actually, British education – or, rather the different education systems within the United Kingdom – does not languish at the “bottom of the pile in every international league table”. The most recent PISA scores place England just inside the top half of the 67 countries measured, a little behind Scotland and some way ahead of Wales. That may not be as good as we might wish but there’s no need to claim the results are worse than they actually are.

And, of course, “bridging this gulf” is exactly what selective university admissions tailored to specific circumstances is actually designed to achieve.

As I say, OFFA is a foolish sop to the Lib Dems but it’s utterly mistaken to suppose it will either cripple Oxbridge or that it’s anything like the most important element of education policy. On the contrary, improving the early years of education is the most important thing. Then you can begin to talk about secondary education.

Improving standards across the board is important but, yes, it’s appalling that so few schools produce so much of the talent that makes it to Britain’s leading universities. Which is why discrimination in university applications is actually a good thing. It is a nonsense to pretend that tiny inconveniences or additional hurdles placed in the way of the 7% of kids educated privately is some kind of national disgrace, far less that doing so is going to “ruin” Britain’s leading universities.

Again, however, discrimination is a feature not a bug so there’s no real need for OFFA at all as universities are perfectly capable of managing these things for themselves.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog.

  • FF42

    Delving further into the PISA figures shows that our best students do as well as anywhere. The problem is at the bottom where too many students leave school uneducated. Our “average” score hides this disparity. Countries that do well in PISA educate all their children to a high standard. So Cristina Odone has a point when she refers to a gulf. Whether you draw the same conclusions from it, is another matter.

    I have more time for Les Ebdon than most in these parts. His much maligned University of Bedfordshire takes students who are – let’s not beat about the bush – illiterate, gets most of them through the course and into jobs. It’s a track record that eludes many other universities who are pickier about their intake. Having said that, the University of Bedfordshire is a million miles away from Oxford University. “Thank God, let’s keep it that way”, I guess many people will say.

  • john cronin

    Like a lot of Massie’s stuff, it is quite difficult to see what exactly his argument is here: Odone’s piece was a bit puzzling in its lack of argument, but then so is his critique.
    The % of University students from social classes C2DE ( and I mean University, not Polys or HE colleges or any of the other ingenious schemes which the educational establishment hackademics have come up with over the past 20 yrs in order to provide more sinecures for themselves) went from 28% in 1968 to 14% in 1983. This occurred bcause of comprehensivisation. There used to be perfectly sound ways to get working class and lower middle class kids into Uni: they were called Grammar Schools. But Labour under Crossman and Shirley wanted equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity.
    “it’s appalling that so few schools produce so much of the talent that makes it to Britain’s leading universities. Which is why discrimination in university applications is actually a good thing.”
    Er, why exactly? This is what us philosophical types call a non sequitar (or is it sequitur, I dunno) Firstly, the % of kids in private schools went up massively under Mrs T: from under 5% to about to nearly 8%: the southern middle class did well, and a lot of folks who might not previously have afforded it did so – also a lot of parents made enormous sacrifices to go private after the destruction of the Grammars. Massie seems to be arguing that the private schools ought to react to the poor levels of education provided in the public sector by dumbing themselves down to match same. And then that the Universities should do likewise: we have already done this, in case he had not noticed. It is called grade inflation: 20 years of record year on year new highs in GCSEs and A Levels, but no one who has interviewed the current crop of school and college leavers thinks for a moment that this reflects reality.

  • Beefeater

    “On the contrary, improving the early years of education is the most important thing.”
    Actually, the early months, not to mention the conditions in utero, are crucial in brain development. Which is why anyone concerned with equality of outcome – an Oxbridge BA and a job in government and its subsidiary institutions (like the Beeb) for all – should empower the government to license parenthood in the interests of education. The socio-economic class of the parents is still the best predictor of student and school performance. Qualified parents will be subsidized to purchase books, green vegetable with meals, empathy-givers, homework space, gratification-deferment advisors, ambition- instillers and tattoo-placement counsellors to provide optimal indicia of socio-economic status. Universities will then be able to take in students on the basis of a lottery – if space is limited, but that should not be the case as parent licensing would be matched to predicted university places. All universities will be publicly funded exclusively. Otherwise they might decide to accept too many of those children whose parents could afford the fees. It must be understood that the universities are not credentialing their students as having met standards of proficiency in subjects with a relation to future employment. They are guarantors of equality of opportunity. Employers (government) will accept new employees by lottery, confident in the knowledge that no-one has been born for or bought himself a job and everybody can do it.

  • Beefeater

    “On the contrary, improving the early years of education is the most important thing.”
    Actually, the early months, not to mention the conditions in utero, are crucial in brain development. Which is why anyone concerned with equality of outcome – an Oxbridge BA and a job in government and its subsidiary institutions (like the Beeb) for all – should empower the government to license parenthood in the interests of education. The socio-economic class of the parents is still the best predictor of student and school performance. Qualified parents will be subsidized to purchase books, green vegetable with meals, empathy-givers, homework space, gratification-deferment advisors, ambition- instillers and tattoo-placement counsellors to provide optimal indicia of socio-economic status. Universities will then be able to take in students on the basis of a lottery – if space is limited, but that should not be the case as parent licensing would be matched to predicted university places. All universities will be publicly funded exclusively. Otherwise they might decide to accept too many of those children whose parents could afford the fees. It must be understood that the universities are not credentialing their students as having met standards of proficiency in subjects with a relation to future employment. They are guarantors of equality of opportunity. Employers (government) will accept new employees by lottery, confident in the knowledge that no-one has been born for or bought himself a job and everybody can do it.

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