I see the Scottish parliament has passed a new bill on widening access to university education.
Always sounds like a good thing, widening access. Of course no-one wants people to be discriminated against based on their background – that’s wrong for the individual and wrong for society.
But I am completely unconvinced that legislation is the way to address it. Not least because imposing specific targets and designating “priority groups” is likely to end up discriminating against specific groups of people too (there are only a finite number of places after all). Come to that – would you want to be “the one they let in because her family’s poor”? As a woman, I’ve never wanted to be in the position of being offered a job for that reason – it seems to imply you’re not really up to it – and I can’t help feeling that any form of positive discrimination suffers from the same problem.
Anyway, deciding on those priority groups ain’t as simple as they always seem to think it is. A lot of things depend on your family background, and I’m not talking about well-off parents buying private tuition necessarily, either. For example, I’m the first one in my family to go to university, and while I would never have thought we were poor, we never had a car, or central heating, or holidays abroad. But my parents were incredibly positive about education and encouraged me to be curious and to love learning throughout my childhood – of course that had a huge impact on my educational success. Anyone who had my sort of background in that respect is “advantaged”, whatever the social class or occupation of their parents. Conversely, those from affluent backgrounds are not necessarily brought up with an appetite for education; some kids, even those of university educated parents, only look at a book when required to by school, for example.
There is a limit to what a school can do about this. We can try, and we do. But if kids are brought up to see education as something that is “done to you” and you only participate in it under sufferance, then that’s very hard to overcome. Though in some ways, the more common approach (taken by many middle class parents) of “education as a means to an end” is more insidious; if the kid is made to believe that they are just learning to pass the next exam to get over the next hurdle to achieve the desired comfortable lifestyle, then the chance of them ever achieving the intellectual heights needed for the elite universities is minimal, whatever their native ability.
These strategies usually involve getting universities to be more flexible about their entry requirements. To a certain extent, fine – if you go to a school where top grades are common, the teaching will be more focused on achieving such grades, so a candidate who gets an A at a high-achieving school may well be no “better” than one who gets a lower grade at a different school. But – to an extent only. Higher/A-level/ IB grades aren’t just an arbitrary means of selection – if you get a D grade in A-level maths, for example, you do not have the requisite knowledge and skills to embark on a maths degree at most universities. It may be an absolute travesty of justice in terms of your native ability that you got that grade, but just chucking the D grade candidate into the degree course alongside the A grade candidate is doing them absolutely no favours, whatever the reason for that grade is – they won’t cope, and are likely to fail. I saw some early attempts at social engineering when I was at university, and boy, did they get it wrong then – the people involved weren’t miserable because they were from a different social background (that was never an issue) but because they couldn’t cope with the work. I remember three people I knew quite well in that category – one dropped out, one got a third and one got an ordinary degree…
The expectation also seems to be that universities are somehow responsible for righting all social wrongs. Why start on the social engineering at the stage when education is no longer compulsory? Isn’t it too late then? The target audience may well have decided they want to go out to get a job, not continue in education – and the universities are certainly onto a loser trying to attract them then, unless it’s through desperation in the absence of jobs. If you really wanted to “widen access”, then it would need to start at a much earlier age, to give schools a much more mixed intake. That then plays havoc with parental choice, but you can’t have it both ways.
Yes, let’s give people second, third, and fourth chances. Let’s not say your fate is determined at 17 or 18. Let’s have opportunities for people to come back to GCSEs, A-levels, Further or Higher Education at any time in their lives. Let’s give that student with a D in their A-level maths the chance to improve their knowledge so that they are in a position to start on a degree course at their university of choice with a chance of success. But a quick fix approach, pretending that differences in existing attainment can be bypassed, is destined to either fail the individual student (by slotting them in somewhere where they can’t cope) or the education system (by lowering the standard to ensure that those individual failures can’t happen).
Of course, the Open University has long been enabling people to follow their dream, even if education didn’t work too well for them the first time. But the OU spends time on the foundation material so that people are able to cope (or if they find their initial choice too tough, they are able to change direction). They also warn everyone very clearly of the commitment required for success – it’s not like taking an 18 year old who hasn’t done too well so far and plonking them in a brick university and hoping it’ll all work out fine.
Then there’s money. OK, Scotland still takes a more enlightened attitude to education, but here in England the funding for almost everything is under pressure. No point talking about equality of opportunity, or widening access, if the costs are going to put off the very people who need those opportunities before they start.