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What if… we really wanted to diversify access to our universities?

  • 29 April 2019
  • By Nick Hillman

The UCL Institute of Education regularly hosts fascinating ‘What if …‘ debates about topical education issues, expertly chaired by Professor Becky Francis. I have just had the pleasure of taking part in one on access to higher education alongside Anna Vignoles, Paul Jump and Claire Fox. My speech is below, but the whole debate is worth watching too.

  • At HEPI, we really value our relationship with the Institute of Education. We don’t always agree. but we learn a huge amount from the work done here.
  • It is, after all, the best place in the world for education, as the banners around this building proclaim. That takes me to my first point: we have incredible hierarchy in UK universities, especially – perhaps – in England.
  • The IoE, which generally says selection and hierarchy in schooling is bad, itself operates as if selection and hierarchy in higher education is good.
  • I am often struck by how fervent campaigners against school selection choose to work in our most selective higher education institutions. We were recently attacked by academics at a very selective university who were angry that we had published a report showing grammar schools are good at getting their pupils to highly-selective universities.
  • I am not sure why it should be so controversial to state that selective schools successfully prepare people for selective universities. But the Durham researchers argued, quite correctly of course, that the average performance of all pupils can fall when you have a selective school system. So they have regularly called for an end to all school selection.
  • Yet the very same researchers are typical in having a completely different attitude to our own sector. In higher education, they do not want an equal system with an end to hierarchy.
  • Instead, they want more contexual offers, so that a few extra poorer students with lower A-Levels can reach so-called ‘top’ universities.
  • That would solidify our institutional hierarchy by getting even more of those with the greatest academic potential into our most prestigious universities, rather than delivering the sort of structural change that the same researchers want to see in schools. Forgive me for being confused.
  • Which brings me to Tim Blackman’s work for us on comprehensive universities. He turns current arguments on their head and says what is good for schools would be good for higher education too: less hierarchy, less selection, more local provision. If comprehensive schools are good, why not have comprehensive universities too?
  • In this model, universities would be similar to one another and students would pop along to their local institution from home, as happens in other countries. Lecture halls would become as diverse as school classrooms.
  • It is thought-provoking stuff. Reading it makes you realise how out of kilter our university system with the systems in place in other countries.
  • I am very pleased to have had a hand in publishing it. But I want to make a different case. This is because there is a problem with comprehensive universities, which Professor Blackman himself identifies: Oxbridge and its influence.
  • We lost the argument about having a set of equal institutions 800 years ago when Oxford was founded, for Oxford and Cambridge spent centuries discouraging the establishment of other universities.
  • This cemented a particular form of higher education in England, most notable for its residential nature – I call it the boarding-school model.
  • This residential model was embedded for newer universities through many things, such as building lots of halls of residence, a national admissions system (orginally UCCA) and the provision of generous maintenance support.
  • I fear we may be 800 years too late for implementing a radically different sort of higher education system. Instead, we should extend the traditional residential model of higher education, the boarding-school model, to far more people.
  • Now that we have hit Tony Blair’s 50% participation target, we should aim for 70% or 80%. Those who oppose the expansion of higher education use the same weak arguments once used by opponents of raising the school leaving age to 11, then 12, then 14, then 15 and then 16 – and they are as unconvincing now as they were then.
  • If we don’t accept the existing residential model as our starting point (and many do not), then we are likely to end up with a half-way house. Rich students will have lots of choice and opt to live away from home while poor students have to stay at home and attend their local institution, which may be a poor fit.
  • The residential model is, of course, super expensive – it is why we adopted student loans before other European countries and why we have expanded their coverage so much. But this financial model is the right one because it provides choice.
  • Were we to get a Government that abolishes student fees, then it is fairly certain that the quality and quantity of provision would decline.
  • So, to conclude, the one most urgent thing we should do to diversify access to universities is: expand, expand, expand.
  • The widening participation debate on how many people are in the system as a whole is – ultimately – more important than the fair access debate about exactly which people fill the most prestigious places.
  • That is important too, but it is of secondary importance – which is why it can so easily be caricatured as being about exactly who should be allowed to do PPE at Oxford.
  • One final comment, given our venue: if, as a higher education sector, we are not prepared to roll back on selection in our own higher education system, then – tactically – we must become more self-aware when we attack selection in schools.
  • “Do as I say, not as I do” is the single least persuasive political argument in existence and thus doomed to failure, especially when it is selection in higher education that is driving selection in schools.

1 comment

  1. The position on the discourse is clear and one that I find unassailable.

    Thank you!

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