Specialisation: Switching, Selection and Sorting

The ‘most significant reform is required’, said David Willetts, in the lack of breadth and the over-specialisation of our curriculum (Willetts, 2008, p340).  Not only is it a problem in itself – we will never tackle C P Snow’s two cultures otherwise – it drives other problems, particularly the division of our curriculum into a false academic/vocational dichotomy and the hyper-selectivity of parts of our entire education system.  The following expands on my piece as part of Wonkhe’s kite flying exercise but also responds to continuing debates about selectivity, a recent example being Iain Mansfield’s HEPI paper on Grammar Schools and comments by Nick Hillman posing a key question about the age at which selection is justified.

We’ve not seen much joined-up policy making from DfE since it took back FE & HE in 2016, so this could be a big opportunity. The biggest prize would be to move against the over-specialisation of courses. Over-specialisation at 18 sets in train specialisation at 16, 14 and 11. It drives an over-reliance on knowledge-based exams, which means students and their families making choices earlier and earlier.  As courses become specialised selection becomes necessary, and that also starts to spiral.

After the wave of expansion in the 1950s, the Robbins report looked at the criticism of first degrees, with concerns the curriculum was too full and too specialised. It was concluded that a ‘higher proportion should be receiving a broader education for their first degrees’ (Robbins 1963 p93).  The Dearing report explicitly picked up the issue from Robbins, recommending that HEIs review their programmes in terms of breath and depth.  They recommended:

Institutions that wish to introduce breadth to the early years of higher education programmes could consider admitting students to a faculty or to the institution, rather than to a specific programme, in order to send strong signals to schools and their pupils about the importance that higher education attaches to a broad education. (Dearing, 1997, p133)

A broad curriculum many have many advantages in its own rights, particularly as to what we value in education. In the specialised curriculum model, we prioritise knowledge.  If we were to organise a proper University Challenge series, this should be two interdisciplinary teams working on a problem for 30 minutes, not barking out facts as quickly as possible.  But there are other issues too.


Specialisation confounds those who would see ‘switching’ as the perfect market solution.  Higher Education is an unusual product – you normally only do the various stages of it once.  Although students do transfer, this is complex and many universities don’t facilitate it because their courses are specialised – even with highly regulated courses it can be hard to start, say a law degree, at one place and finish at another.  In the US with their more general education structures it is far more easy, some state systems are built around transfers from 2 year colleges to complete at 4 year ones and the federal government may mandate this.


I think specialisation plays a key part in our focus on selecting students.  Nick Hillman asks the question, if selection at 18 is acceptable, then why is it problematic at 11?   If you accept that admission to courses is primarily about determining whether a student can benefit from them, then specialisation plays a role.  Students need both knowledge and skills to be able to benefit, so additional specialisation creates pathways where pre-requisites are built up.  In England, the national curriculum prescribes the learning that should be followed at key stage 3, but there are choices which can be made at key stage 4 for GCSEs etc, including moving to a UTC offering a specialised curriculum.   Although choice opens out even further after key stage 4 , it does so in a highly specialised context, framed by the prospect of university offers or pathways to employment.

Specialisation drives selection, but selection drives specialisation.  I’ve noted before that there were complaints in the 1950s that as gaining university places became more competitive, universities could limit scarce places to better prepared students.  A process of transferring the curriculum from the first stages of university to the last stage of school slowly took place.

There’s a fine example of this with the two Maths Schools (with more to follow), twining specialisation with selectivity. At King’s a GSCE grade 8 is required in maths – an outcome limited to 8.3% of those who took it alongside a 7 in Physics (less selective – 42.6% of those who took that GCSE got at least that grade).

I think the justification for selection comes from choice.  This is broadly the same case that Jonathan Simons makes on Wonkhe that it comes from lack of compulsion.  I think it’s less about the choice not to engage with a level of education, but the choice of different courses with different entrance requirements.

That’s not the end of the story though; it is clear that as well as deciding who can benefit, selection is rationing places.  Oxford will only admit 3250 undergraduates a year, so it needs to ration its places.  No doubt there is a pool of at least 32500 school leavers who could benefit from going to Oxford (if they want to study the courses and live a particular kind of residential life), sometimes it’s assumed that 325000 people ought to envy going there.  Using success at A level is a perfectly rational basis to do decide who to admit, even if we know that success can be affected by other factors.

The impact of rationing and choosing work together.  We have a hierarchy that comes from a long legacy where choice was restricted.  Choosing the ‘academic’ route has greater esteem; it happens at 11, 14, 16 and 18.  Choosing the selective route has greater esteem.  Surely at the broadest stage, with the least choice, there should be the least rationing?  A key concern about selection at 11 is that we are rationing a route towards the greatest esteem on the least evidence, when we expect all students to take the same curriculum. As we increase specialisation, we increase the choice but we also decrease the esteem that attaches to the least rationed outcomes.


All of this would help DfE act on Simon Marginson’s conclusion that the hierarchy of value in higher education is the keystone issue:

In building greater social equity in higher education, within increasingly high-participation systems, the quality of mass higher education is the most important single issue. In short, the value of higher education should be made more equal between institutions, so that higher education can maximise its contribution to more democratic, more equal, more universally productive and more solidaristic societies. (Marginson, 2016, p273)

We are too dominated by hierarchy; that diminishes the importance of the diversity of approaches that we take. The preoccupation with knowledge enhances the fake dichotomy between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ higher education, which fades off into a further, but lower, category of ‘technical’ education.

Less specialisation would helps DfE sell a diversity of educational approaches, especially technical education, by not creating it as a fixed path at 11, 14, 16 or even 18.  These junctions attract the extra issues of sorting: that the ‘choice’ between grammar and secondary modern, comprehensive or UTC, sixth form or FE college becomes laden with more than just the issue of the course chosen.  It ends with the most hyper-selective where schools measure themselves on the number of pupils entering Oxbridge or Russell Group universities.  The sorting becomes a signifier to others; accentuating the benefit it confers.

So with the impact specialisation has, and accepting all we hold dear about the autonomy of universities, why not have DfE try to tackle this? It could support broader first years? That might support more general study at 16, enable more switching of paths, enable students to range more along the continuum of ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ paths, allow students to build up a wider pattern of qualifications. Broader qualifications could see switching universities if you want, but also lifelong learning as students could have more learning skills.  Do what Dearing suggested and admit students to faculties, not courses.


Dearing, R, [The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education], 1996, Higher Education in the learning society, HMSO, London
Robbins, L, [Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins] 1963, Higher Education, London, HMSO
Marginson, S, 2016, Higher Education and the Common Good. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press


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