University isn’t right for everyone

If you’re going to university simply to improve your CV or ‘find yourself’, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

David Perks

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Topics Politics

In the UK, around 190,000 applicants will miss out on a place at university this year. But why are we so intent on sending half of the school population to university anyway? For some people, the case for taking up higher education just isn’t that strong.

Last week’s A-level results represented an increase in performance for the twenty-eighth consecutive year, with 97.6 per cent of examinations passed and 27 per cent passed with an A or the new A* grade. This led to predictable charges that A-levels – end-of-school exams taken by 18-year-olds in England and Wales – are becoming a debased currency, especially considering their role in selecting candidates for university places. The number of grades awarded at A* was more than 69,000 higher than predicted. Just four universities, including Cambridge, are asking for an A* grade, but there are far too many successful candidates for the new grade to act as a clear selection criteria for admission to the top universities.

Worse still, the introduction of the A* grade has re-opened the debate about the gap in achievement between independent schools and state comprehensives. At City of London Girls School, a top independent school, more than one in four grades awarded was an A*. The national figures show that a pupil is three times more likely to gain an A* grade in an independent school than at a state comprehensive. This provoked Lib-Con deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to denounce the middle-class dominance of university places. Add to this the disparity between the number of pupils taking A-levels in science and the situation is even worse. Four times as many independent school pupils sit at least one science A-level compared to their comprehensive school counterparts, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

With ministers in the coalition government trying to outdo each other in seeming most compassionate about the failure of education to create social mobility, you could be forgiven for getting a sense of déjà vu. David Willetts, the universities minister, has encouraged universities to be biased towards candidates from poor schools. ‘Maybe they have not got the highest academic qualifications but they’re clearly very bright’, he said. Vince Cable, the Lib-Con government’s skills secretary, has proposed a quota system, suggesting colleges could reserve places for pupils from a wide range of schools. It all sounds very New Labour.

The aim seems to be to squeeze as many kids as possible into university, without asking why. The arguments put forward for university education these days never mention the chance to rub shoulders with some of the best minds of our generation, or to take time out from the demands of the real world in order to immerse yourself in the pursuit of intellectual excellence. Instead, university is seen as the solution to a plethora of social problems, not least improving social mobility and raising the employment prospects of young people. One of the commonest reasons students give for studying the sciences at A-level is because they want to become a doctor. In other words, young people have taken on the idea that studies are simply something you do in order to get a job, and not an intellectual pursuit in themselves. For the majority, going to university after A-levels has become a kind of inefficient job-training scheme. It is little wonder that the dropout rate for first degrees is nine per cent.

Alternatively, a big emphasis is placed on going to university as a chance to ‘find yourself’ and grow up. This makes it a kind of middle-class rite of passage. As a university admissions tutor put it to the students at the school where I teach, ‘you can get drunk and not have to worry about going home’. The growth of gap years before university has become a ritual that parents and universities have endorsed because they want students to grow up before they arrive. The whole thing becomes justified as some kind of existential search for meaning shared between slumming it in South America or Asia and slumming it on campus.

What is missed is that the really transformative aspect of university life is the engagement with ideas. The brilliant thing about my own experience as an undergraduate was that I was thrown together with students from diverse backgrounds who had one thing in common: the desire to learn and stretch themselves intellectually. It was the chance to debate philosophy, politics and psychology with others that opened my eyes to the wider possibility of understanding the world. Unfortunately, such a rarefied university atmosphere is only open to fairly small numbers of students. If we see university as only being valuable in terms of its economic utility, or as a surrogate nursery for the slow-to-develop, then we are missing something significant about the role of higher education.

The changing view of university life is not surprising given the attitude of the current and past governments to the intellectual pursuit of ideas. Former Labour education secretary Charles Clarke’s claim that education for its own sake is ‘a bit dodgy’ epitomised the disdain with which his government looked upon academic study. Now, under the guise of the coalition’s self-inflicted austerity package, huge sections of British scientific research could be swept away. Astronomy, one of the most attractive aspects of physics for most students, faces near annihilation in the UK. The situation is so bad that the new chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has written an open letter to the Lib-Con government expressing concern that cuts would be both ‘counterintuitive and counterproductive’ and that ‘reductions in science spend may yield short-term savings at the expense of long-term damage to the UK science base’.

What is the point of studying physics at A-level and doing a physics degree if we don’t think it is worth researching? A friend of mine, Dr Simon Foster, recently visited the British telescopes on La Palma to produce a promotional film for the Institute of Physics. While there he was introduced to the scientist behind a successful project to find extra-solar planets, and was also shown all the telescopes that will shortly be shut down due to funding cuts. Costing £0.5million, this project is now likely to be abandoned even though it is outperforming NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope (worth $600million) by about 60 to one. This kind of short-sighted philistinism can only make it harder to convince pupils that intellectual endeavour has something to offer them.

David Perks is head of physics at Graveney School, London. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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