Friday, 8 July 2011

I'm sorry to go on about this, but they really are intellectual mediocrities

You may have read my impassioned rant about the iniquities of the government's White Paper on Higher Education, either here, or in the Times Higher Education magazine (the same day that some of my fencing photographs were published in The Sword - I'm so meeja).

But like a dog returning to its vomit, I think I have to point out a few subtleties which evaded me when the red mist descended. And I'm going to stay calm this time. Specifically, the plan to let 'top' universities expand their share of 'top' A-level achievers, and to reserve 20,000 university places for institutions charging less than £7500 per year.

1. The 'top' 10 or so universities already grab almost half of all the AAB-achieving students.

2. Not all 'top' universities are brilliant at all subjects, and this change will privilege prestige over pragmatism.

3. The privately-educated achieve a massively disproportionate share of the top A-level grades. This is because the schools are selective, they're intensive exam-factories, they're skilled at playing the system, their class sizes are tiny and the students have all the social advantages. The system's already skewed towards those who can buy advantage (hence the 50% of Oxbridge's intake who come from fee-paying institutions), and the new system will tip the scales even further.

4. The Sutton Trust's research shows that state-educated students outperform their privately-educated rivals once at university: when the incredible support structures of private schools are removed, reality returns (and if you want to spend the day in tears generated by impotent fury, I suggest you start reading these reports).

So restricting elite university entrance to the over-privileged even more, will massively discriminate against state school pupils, with knock-on effects for the social demographic of entry to the professions, leading to an even more unequal society. Journalists, lawyers, judges, politicians, doctors, dentists, academics: all groups massively dominated by the 7% of the population which went to fee-paying schools. You want in? Cough up. Try this on for size (research paper here):
Four schools and one sixth-form college sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge between them over three years than 2,000 schools and colleges across the UK, according to a new study that analyses university admissions by individual schools.
Westminster, Eton, St Pauls, St Pauls Girls School and Hills Road sixth form college, a state school, produced 946 Oxbridge entrants from 2007-09. In the same period, 2,000 schools and colleges sent 927 pupils to Oxbridge. 
At a comprehensive and a private school in Cornwall, with near identical results, one sent 17% to selective universities and the other 66%. 
The schools, of course, are fee-paying. The Sixth-form college is one which apes the selective approaches taken by the private sector. Some delightful campuses will become Jack Wills-clad finishing schools, in which the quality will never have to meet an oiky pauper.

5.  Let's turn to the £7500 and lower meat market. Universities will be encouraged to get down into the mud to fight each other for 20,000 students. What do you get for £7500 and less? You certainly won't be getting expensive science degrees. You won't be getting staff with Nobel Prizes and cutting-edge research. You'll get massive classes, postgraduate student teachers (not bad in themselves, but it's a cynical shortcut) and poor resources. You can't fund a degree properly on £7500. You can't buy new equipment, fund research, expand the teaching staff, buy new books, pay for academic skills tutors, counsellors and so on with that.

I want to be really clear about this. The students who scrape into university cost a lot of money to educate. They need much more help, much more personal attention. They tend not to have their own computers. They work to support themselves and don't have the resources and leisure to go the extra mile. Many have undiagnosed literacy or learning difficulties.

You might be thinking 'ok, they shouldn't be at university'. That's an acceptable line to take. Perhaps I'd take it myself if I didn't deal, on a daily basis, with the people who've been failed by the warehousing, mechanised school system we have. We specialise in the young who've been failed by the schools, and in the mature students who've never previously had the chance of HE: the AAB-for-the-Russell Group plan is explicit discrimination against the poor, the unsupported and (looking at private school and elite university intakes), the Northerners, the Welsh, the Scots the ethnic minorities.

If you took your average private school kid and dumped her in an unfashionable, unfunded, politically-meddled state school for 15 years, she'd be no better off than my students.

You certainly won't find those with top A-levels on these discount degrees. It's a massive and explicit move to formalise what Ritzer called the McDonaldisation of education. Conveyor-belt mass production for those worried about debt (i.e. the poor), élite individual tuition in delightful historic buildings for the rich. Establishment jobs for the latter, drudgery for the former.

None of this can be an accident. After all, our government is packed with people from top private schools who gained First Class degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. The only explanation can be that they know all this and like it.

That is all.

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