We should redefine how we debate university admissions – we focus on an intractable problem rather than the opportunities that exist.
The .gov.uk site brings together government announcements – and you’ll find 31 January 2016 had three interesting press releases :
Kids’ education and employment opportunities ranked by area
PM: Time to tear down the barriers at elite universities
BIS and Number 10
Review of racial bias and BAME representation in Criminal Justice System announced
MOJ and Number 10
Interestingly the links were made at first between the university ‘barriers’ and the racial bias in the courts – perhaps because of the link made by the PM noting that a young black man has a greater chance to going to prison than an ‘elite’ university. Of course, the links should have been made with the findings of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which maps disadvantage. It’s a surprise that the No10 press people didn’t link them, but there’s not much point worrying about media management…
The ‘debate’ proceeds… ‘Elite’ universities can only admit those who apply. ‘Elite’ universities can only admit those who merit a place. On their own terms, these notions are justifiable. Our problem is that the debate over admission to English Universities has become too narrow – in a number of ways.
Oxford and Cambridge and other ‘Leading’ universities
We have a sector of higher education, but we are focused on our ‘leading’ universities. They dominate the debate: arguably the English system is uniquely focused on a very small number of universities (nominally 24, but often just 2 of them). A key performance indicator of our schools is how many kids get into these sub-sets of a sector – as if that was all that mattered. As Howard Newby was wont to observe, “the English have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy”. In case you think this is over-stated – the report of the meeting on 1 February to discuss the issue named only the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and King’s College London as being present.
The English have a peculiar approach to curriculum which has led to a series of unhelpful iterations which have made our curriculum unusually narrow. There’s enough for a PhD on this (I know) but just look at how in the 1950s when university places were scarce, schools drove their pupils to specialise to meet entrance requirements, in turn universities reflected the change in preparation by specialising their courses at first year. Schools specialised, so universities specialised, so schools specialised until both sixth form and first year university study were transformed. This left us with ‘elite’ universities looking for achievement in preparatory study more than ever.
Rationing of places
Scarcity of places in universities, especially scarcity in high reputation universities, means that more people apply than can be accommodated. Although the admissions system is designed to match students to courses, it inevitably rations places. Rationing has become rational: places at the ‘best’ universities are awarded to those with the best scores. Even if a student with three B grades could benefit from the higher education on offer at a ‘leading’ university, they won’t get in because of the rationing. To an extent, universities have outsourced their admissions decisions to the school exam system (which is ironic, as it was the university entrance exams which became the school exam system).
With narrow courses and a narrow sense of what is preparation and a narrow sense of rationing, then the logic of our admissions discussion becomes rather narrow. If we look at another hierarchical system, we find different questions and different answers.
The Shape of the River
In short, the situation in the US is different. Affirmative action is allowed, having been tested through to the Supreme Court. But the difference runs deeper, as this book by former presidents of Princeton and Harvard explains.
They describe universities who draw their objectives in selecting students rather wider than in the UK. They see a public purpose in their universities helping to create a better society through their education. This means, among many other issues, that in addition to selection on ability to benefit, Bowen and Bok identify other considerations; including assembling a class of students with a wide variety of backgrounds – as students learn from each other. They stress that they are looking for students who will make a valuable or distinctive contribution. They also note that there are ‘long-term institutional loyalties and traditions’ – in the UK, alumni ‘legacies’ won’t pass anymore, but this group also includes serving a particular geographical area.
Bowen and Bok advance the case for affirmative action with evidence particularly focused on the long-term societal value of a diverse graduate population. For them this trumps the argument about limiting admission solely on merit (as measured by preparation for college). The difference in context between the US and the UK limit the transferability of many of their arguments, but it is that difference that I find interesting. Whatever the flaws in the systems, the difference in breadth of the admissions debate is marked.
I would like the UK debate to be widened: to more than just ‘leading’ universities and to more than just admission solely on preparation.