Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Snobbery of elite universities

Politicians are very keen to blame teachers for failing to inspire pupils with sufficient aspiration and confidence to persuade them to apply to Oxbridge and other so-called "elite" universities, and less enthusiastic about criticising the universities themselves for creating a self-reinforcing spiral. Of course, governments have to accept responsibility for underfunding schools and closing Sure-Start centres, and even for refusing to contemplate passing legislation banning universities from exceeding the 7% national level with students from public schools, but universities have the means to improve social mobility at a stroke, and refuse to do it.
   David Lammy, back in October last year, revealed how both Oxford and Cambridge, recipients of over £800m of taxpayers` money each year, enrol consistently around 80% of their intake from the top two social classes, with more offers being made to pupils from Eton than to students on free school meals across the whole country. Totally unsurprisingly, the number of ethnic minority students accepted is so low, Lammy concluded there has to be "systematic bias"!
      And still the universities make excuses. A recent article in the Guardian by  professor Wolff from Oxford university claimed that "playing safe" with undergraduate admissions, in other words giving preference to applicants from upper middle class homes, was encouraged by the government`s Teaching Excellence Framework. This includes students` drop-out rates as a measurement of a university`s success, but has been in existence for under two years, and is the most feeble of reasons for explaining decades of the lack of diversity in our "top" universities.
   It clearly does not explain why students with straight As from an economically poor area in the north of England stand far less chance of being accepted by one of the Russell group universities than does someone with similar grades from a public school. According to Lammy`s research, Oxford, for example, makes more offers to applicants from five of the home counties than to the whole of the north of England.
   How similar are those qualifying grades anyway? Do universities check whether the grades have been achieved through traditional A-levels, or whether students have taken the Pre-U examinations, popular in most public schools, where there is the possibility that the exam papers were either set or marked by their teachers. A cheating scandal was exposed involving these examinations last summer, resulting in a pathetic "investigation" by the Commons education select committee. If these examinations, not inspected and regulated by the Joint Council for Qualifications like all the other examinations taken by sixth-formers, and run, incidentally by Cambridge Assessment International, part of Cambridge university, are not chosen because of the extra advantage they afford, what is the reason?
         Where is the "risk", anyway, in offering a place to a student from a school in an economically-deprived area, who achieves grade Bs and Cs in traditional A-level examinations, and who clearly has the potential to attain an excellent degree? He or she may lack, unsurprisingly, confidence, and may not perform well in a nerve-racking interview, which has a reputation for belittling applicants with local dialects and who are unable to recite any of Byron`s poetry, but has real talent and potential to improve further. Research by Cardiff and Oxford Brookes universities proved students from state schools gain better degrees than independently-educated candidates with the same A-level grades.
       There is only one reason the so-called "elite" universities recruit so many undergraduates from schools in the private sector, when nationally only 7% pupils attend them - academic snobbery. A Labour government should consider legislation, both to force these universities to open their doors much wider, and to insist all university qualifications in the UK are gained through properly regulated examinations.

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