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A welcome argument, but only half of the argument

  • 12 December 2019
  • By Tim Blackman

A response by Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, to Lee Elliot Major’s Social mobility and elite universities.

Lee Elliott Major’s note Social mobility and elite universities makes a series of important recommendations, many of which are a welcome step forward in the debate about how to create more diversity in all our universities.

A key recommendation is to adopt the Scottish approach of each programme in every institution including an intake quota at lower grades reserved for applicants from the most deprived areas. This recognises that deprivation generally depresses academic attainment and that these applicants are still likely to succeed with the right support and teaching.

I cited the Scottish example in my booklet The Comprehensive University that HEPI published in 2017 , along with one of Lee’s other suggestions that random selection is used for over-subscribed programmes, rather than just raising the entry bar way beyond any possible educational justification for being so selective. We share much common ground but on one fundamental issue we disagree.

That issue is how the access debate gets framed in a way that only considers part of the picture: the so-called ‘elite’ universities that often dominate debate about higher education yet only educate a minority of the country’s students.

‘Elite’ universities are described as such simply because they are so selective. They are the grammar schools of the higher education sector and cause the same problem for other universities as grammar schools cause for other schools. This problem is that they cream off students who have had all the advantages that enable them to be academic high-achievers at school, concentrating these students in institutions that are full of other students like them, making all universities less diverse and denying other universities a mix of abilities that is likely to enrich their learning environment and benefit everyone.

Lee is silent about the many, often post-92, universities that have become the secondary moderns of the higher education sector because of the self-perpetuating prestige of highly selective institutions. While the measures he advocates would help diversify these institutions, they would do so at the cost of other universities that do not have the prestige that comes with the academic snobbery that pervades British higher education.

Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that the only way to address this problem is to return to student number controls at an institutional level and require institutions to use entry quotas banded by grades above a minimum matriculation requirement to create mixed ability intakes across the board. This would be a requirement of their access or outcome agreements. There could be some exceptions; in The Comprehensive University I suggested that a regional distribution of research universities could be excluded on the basis that they explicitly prioritise research over education and the unique open access mission of The Open University would continue to serve a valuable role.

This would be a highly cost-effective approach but above all create diverse classrooms and labs with the potential to achieve the additional learning gain that the now extensive literature on the ‘diversity bonus’ suggests could be achieved with classes that are cognitively and identity diverse.

To underline the point, this is not just an issue for the most selective institutions but for all institutions. Lee makes the observation that an average of just 5 per cent of free school meal pupils enter higher education. Yet at my previous institution, Middlesex University, over half of our students had been free school meal pupils. It is just as problematic to have such large concentrations of deprivation in some institutions as it is to have such large concentrations of privilege in others, but it cannot be tackled by managing the market alone. It needs planning.

Lee argues that it is unlikely we can dismantle the ‘academic pecking order’ among universities, yet that is what has been done almost universally in secondary education. True, such pecking orders have re-emerged even among comprehensive schools, often because of the surrounding class segregation of residential areas. But the principle is that pecking orders should, if at all, be based on objective measures of school quality and not the kind of reasoning that would judge the best hospitals as those that admit the most healthy patients.

It is also true that it is a big task to persuade the public at large that it is not beneficial for their children to go to an ‘elite’ university given the evidence that many of the most elite employers favour recruits from these institutions. But these employers would have access to the same graduates even if they went to different universities. They would just have to use fairer methods of recruitment to reach them (also giving them a wider and potentially better choice).

However, even before these arguments start to get public attention – and I think they will in time just as more and more parents in the 1950s and ‘60s started to question whether grammar school systems really served the country’s best interests – there are likely to be other disruptions that upset the status quo.

Lee touches on this with his support for more flexible loans that enable students to study portfolios of modules rather than a qualification, putting together what they need rather than what they are prescribed, including a mix of subjects and levels of study, potentially built up over a lifetime rather than concentrated in the years 18 to 21. This would really begin to break down traditional barriers if, for example, a student could take a level 3 module in say tree surgery (a shortage skill) from their FE college, along some level 4 and 5 modules in business from one university and a level 6 project in conservation from another university, with perhaps some on-line scaffolding modules to support progression.

What I do not think is a good idea is to advocate more audits and more league tables. The sector is already creaking under the number of reports and returns it is required to complete, paradoxically never including institutions’ own strategic plans and institutional performance indicators. There are many progressive incremental reforms that can be made – I would add to Lee’s list the scandal of part-time distance learning students being denied access to maintenance loans in England – and in that sense his note is certainly to be welcomed. But there are great dangers in a one-sided argument that frames the debate as one that is just about access to ‘elite’ universities.

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