University: Admission to what?

Giving students extra marks for being 'disadvantaged' does them no favours.

Ellie Lee

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Topics Politics

The issue of access to higher education in the UK continues to generate more questions than an exam paper. Should students from worse schools be given a university place having gained lower grades than those from better schools? Do A-levels measure ability well? Do universities need to do more to make sure that students who are rejected know why they have not been offered a place?

The latest instalment of this discussion has been provoked by a report by the Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group, chaired by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University in London. The Steering Group has been set up by the government and charged with finding ways of creating a ‘fair and unbiased’ entry process to higher education; and it published its report, ‘Admissions to Higher Education Review’, last week.

Schwartz takes pains to state that the report raises more questions than answers. ‘We don’t want to tell you what we [the Steering Group] think, we want to know what the public thinks’, he says, writing in the Guardian about the purpose of the report (1). So rather than advocating specific measures or changes to the university admissions process, the report outlines the issues perceived to be generating debate about university admissions, and floats various options to make the admissions process fairer.

However, while the Steering Group may be coy about suggesting practical changes to the admissions procedure, it is very clear about the reason why change of some sort must happen. The notion that entry to university is ‘unfair’ is based on fact that more children from middle-class backgrounds go to university than those from disadvantaged ones; and the argument is that something must be done – whatever that might be – to make it possible for more disadvantaged students to enter higher education.

The Steering Group treats this argument as uncontentious. But before debating ways of changing the university admissions system, we should take issue with the assumptions behind the argument about why it needs to change.

It is of course difficult to criticise the project of ‘widening access’ because of the terms in which it is posed. To say that one disagrees with the premise that lies behind the Steering Group’s investigation, never mind the specific measures that might result from it, means running the risk of appearing to be a snob who cares little the for problems of young people disadvantaged by low income backgrounds and poor schooling. But to use changes to the university admissions system in the way the Steering Group’s report implies, as a band-aid for the problems of education that begin in primary and secondary schools, will be to nobody’s advantage.

For example, the use of A-level grades as a measure of whether a student should be offered a place at university is being called into question, on the grounds that this measure provides a built-in advantage for middle-class students. They attend schools oriented towards getting students into university, it is argued, and therefore they are trained from early on in a way that makes university possible.

By contrast, the argument goes, children from poorer backgrounds go to schools where they are not expected to progress automatically from GCSE though A-level to university. Hence, while they may be potentially as able as their middle-class peers – and often more so than some who are trained to compensate for their lack of natural ability through being primed to do well in exams – they do not get such good grades, and therefore do not get into university so easily.

It would be silly to contest much of this claim. By definition, middle-class students have more advantages than those from less privileged backgrounds. But if the problem is that children who attend less good schools do not have access to good enough education and therefore do less well at A-level (and in their GCSEs), then the problem should be tackled there. Why not try to ensure that all school students are given access to the kind of education provided by the better schools?

The fact that attention is focused on university admissions, rather than secondary schooling, may indicate that higher education has become targeted as the sector charged with overcoming the problem of social disadvantage: an idea as troubling as it is unrealisable. But some comments made by Schwartz suggest that there is more to it than this. The debate about admissions seems to have been fuelled by some particular ideas about disadvantage – and these ideas are something we really should worry about.

Even though the Steering Group has not explicitly advocated it, it does seem clear that the wind is blowing in the direction of finding measures other than A-levels to judge whether an applicant should succeed. Schwartz, for example, points to alternative systems, such as those adopted by some higher education institutions in the USA, that measure merit ‘not only by where one stands, but how far one had to go to get there’ (2). In other words, it is not only the marks achieved that count, but background. What is needed is to ‘take into account’ social disadvantages and the type of school a student attends.

Schwartz argues that one major reason why this kind of approach should be considered is educational. ‘Students at university learn not just from their teachers’, he contends, ‘but also from one another’. This happens as they gain exposure to ‘students from different backgrounds’. Hence ‘we must ensure that our classes are diverse’ (3).

Therefore the goal is not, in fact, to do as much as possible before students get near to the point of applying to university to ensure that they are academically equipped to succeed. Rather, in the Steering Group’s view, it is positive to have students attending university who are not advantaged in this way. What counts is the fact that they are unlike their better-educated peers.

This displays an approach to education and learning that is far from egalitarian. It represents those who are working class, or black, or disabled as valuable to the university not because of what they might have in their minds and what they have striven to know about their chosen subject, but because of what they are. Their contribution to the university is constituted by their disadvantage, not because they have worked hard to become an able student.

To my mind, this takes us to a position where we disregard the primary reason why the university could even strive to be an egalitarian institution. This is because of its project. The purpose of university education is to enable students to engage with the process of developing ideas and generating knowledge at a sophisticated level. Engagement with this project is an intellectual matter. In this sense the university can create a ‘level playing field’, where those who contribute to it do so because of the quality of the ideas they generate and how hard they work, not because of who or what they are.

Going to university, ideally, allows students to interact with and learn from those who are the cutting edge of their subject and who can push them to develop their minds, and think and write in a way that takes them way beyond who they are already. It fills me horror to envisage a system in which those who are ‘disadvantaged’ are encouraged to think that what matters about them, and what they contribute to the process of generating knowledge, is their disadvantage – that they should revel in this, and see it as a source of some sort of special insight.

It has been encouraging to note, from the ‘disadvantaged’ school students that I have seen interviewed by the media so far, that they seem rather repelled by this idea. They have indicated that they don’t want to be patronised by being viewed as people who can’t get to university without being given brownie points because their parents don’t own three cars or because they are black.

Furthermore, some have pointed out that it is in fact already really easy to get to go to university anyway, and the current fuss is rather bemusing. One does have to wonder just how easy it needs to be before the current government will be satisfied – more students that ever go to university now, and many universities already take into account students’ background when considering their application (4).

A-levels might not be a perfect measure of talent, and it may be that better approaches to university admission could be designed. But if anything the problem at the moment is that A-levels do not stretch and push students hard enough, and it is too easy to get good grades. Proposals being put forward now imply that we should demand even less of young people than we do already, and lower our expectations still further. If enacted, they will take us a further step away still from what is needed, and will do those disadvantaged young people they purport to help no good at all.

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