UK education is unfair - and this can't be solved by fiddling around with university entrance requirements.
Everyone seems to be crying ‘It’s not fair!’, as confusion over university entrance standards escalated this week.
Universities such as Bristol have been criticised for turning away pupils from upper-middle-class backgrounds and private schools, in favour of those from less-privileged families, in an attempt to raise the percentage of state-school pupils entering their institutions. Bristol University, in turn, has denied all accusations of social engineering.
At the same time, UK higher education minister Margaret Hodge was ordered by education secretary Charles Clarke to back down on plans to set a target for closing the gap between the percentage of upper-middle-class and working-class pupils entering higher education. Her public U-turn reflected the split within the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) over methods to widen university access through altering the admissions procedure.
While Hodge flags up the ‘unfair’ class divide in higher education, her critics call attention to independent school pupils who have lost university places to working-class peers with lower grades (1).
I’ll tell you what’s not fair.
It’s not fair that if your Mum and Dad have money, they can send you to a private school where you get a better education than most other people. It’s not fair that six-year-olds with rich parents can go to a prep school and enjoy better maths lessons than 16-year-olds in sixth forms where class sizes are double the size that they should be. No fiddling around with university entrance requirements is going to change these things, or change the fact that going to university is an expensive business.
This is all bad enough, but what’s really not fair is to end up with a degree held in the same regard as a P45 from Tesco.
One broadsheet argues that a recruitment policy that takes social class into account does not deter from the idea that ‘the main criterion for university should be academic potential’. Apparently, studies have shown that privately schooled pupils tend to achieve lower grades at university than their state-school peers, because ‘better coaching, which private school students received, camouflaged their lower natural ability’ (2).
By that token, perhaps pupils who work harder at school, thus doing better in their A-levels than their naturally able but lazy friends, should have the stars removed from their As? Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee argues that ‘spotting potential is not easy – but A-levels may reveal less than, say, picking pupils who outshine others in less good schools or reading teachers’ reports’ (3). That’s pretty galling if you worked your butt off for your grades – and it’s about as valid a plea as ‘my hamster ate my dissertation’ helping poorer students get their 2:1.
So long as the standard of education in British schools is of such different quality, determining those most academically deserving of a university place is going to be tricky. The only real way to compare potential is to give everyone the same chance to shine. Everyone should have access to the high-quality coaching that allows the most to be made of their talents.
Nobody should have to go to an inferior school – this is the only approach that is really going to change things. Pushing pupils who achieve less at A-levels into university places above those with higher exam marks is not only closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, but will also result in the degree they end up with becoming less of an achievement itself.
Changing entrance requirements for university isn’t going to make poor families any richer or higher education any more affordable; it isn’t going to change the fact that when you’re richer, you can buy a private education, with smaller class sizes, better facilities and more opportunities.
Entry to university should be based on academic potential determined by academic tests. Any attempt to mould university entrance figures by accounting for anything other than educational merit undermines that.
What kind of degree do students want to be working towards? If this ridiculous mess of initiatives to shift access to higher education continues, then more people who have less might get into university, but the degrees they leave with could well end up being a joke.
Politicians should stop getting into a muddle about university admissions procedures – which are complicated enough for anyone trying to decipher the UCAS handbook – and start talking about equality like they mean it. That means making the best available to everyone from primary school up.
A degree is a symbol of educational achievement, not a congratulatory note that you were born in a council flat, but well done, you’re learnt to read and write. For the sake of those who have to struggle to fund their degree, let’s keep it that way.
(1) U-turn on University admissions, Liz Lightfoot, Daily Telegraph, 5 March 2003
(2) Admission charges, Guardian, 4 March 2003
(3) The middle class will take the lot if Blair lets them , Polly Toynbee, Guardian, Wednesday 5 March
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