Injustice in the Academy

Posted on February 15, 2011

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From a guest blogger:

Clare College Cambridge

The Guardian notes that universities ‘could be forced to direct more of their income towards widening access if they fail to meet new targets for admitting state school pupils’. Specifically, it is being suggested that universities may be asked to lower entry requirements for students from poorer backgrounds. Ironically perhaps, it is said that this will apply in the first place to universities wishing to charge the most expensive fees – the ones students from poorer backgrounds are least likely to attend in any case. But what is all this about in reality?

Although a rather crude analogy, in sportsman’s terms this is rather like saying that goalposts should be widened because not enough goals are being scored by weaker football teams. While universities should obviously not make admission into their institutions unreasonably difficult (since they would then have no students), it does undermine the idea of academic merit if student cohorts are to be dictated by politicians who hold purse-strings they are adamant about tightening. Universities want to teach students, and since they are in daily contact with the ‘punters’, they might be thought best placed to determine exactly who they can and should educate.

It seems, however, that Government has knowledge the universities lack, and is keenly aware of the ‘reality’ that academic ability is evenly distributed in the human population. Quite how this distribution has occurred so evenly is a mystery (perhaps a holy one) but universities are to be penalised if they do not acknowledge this truth.

Whilst widening access is, per se, a laudable aim, it is very difficult to see how the options currently outlined would be able to achieve this without simultaneously compromising academic standards, since universities are being asked to accept students (taught in Government-run schools) who do not display potential for rigorous academic study.

Yet many students no longer even believe in the value of the subjects they are being taught. When one A Level is considered as good as another whether it be in mathematics, history or sociology, one might ask why universities should not favour humanities over natural science students for places in engineering or medicine. The truth is, of course, that one A Level is not exactly equivalent to another. An A Level in music is not a preparation suited to the study of chemistry at degree level, but it should be a good one for entering a conservatoire to study violin. In order, however, to be ready to enter a conservatoire for the said purpose one needs not only a certain level of musical knowledge and ability but also the interest, will and belief in the subject to make four years of study and seemingly endless hours of practice worthwhile.

One Cambridge academic has already made clear that she and her colleagues seek to judge students on ‘potential’. But for students to present academic potential they must believe the subjects they are studying are worthwhile and even uniquely special. We recently noted on this blog that more than 80% of GCSE students do not achieve the ‘English Bac’ opting instead for more vocational subjects. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. We need young people to study vocational subjects. But by giving both vocational and academic qualifications the same name the message goes out that mathematics is no better a route than ‘leisure and tourism’ in order to develop one’s academic potential. The University of Oxford does not provide tuition in leisure and tourism, but is not unaware of its significance. That such a course of study should be accepted by any university as suitable preparation for a degree course seems ridiculous.

Nick Clegg has said these plans are about fairness. They are nothing of the sort. The Government has consistently undermined academic standards in its own schools by promoting the myth that vocational and academic subjects are equivalent and is now about to penalise universities for its own catastrophic failings.

There is no reason whatsoever for students from poorer backgrounds not to go to our best universities, indeed they should do so. The problem is that they have had forced upon them the utter fiction of subject-equivalence.

(Photograph © Christian Richardt, 24 October, 2004. No endorsement implied.)

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Posted in: Education