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University challenge: getting even.

THE PUBLICATION OF any report by the government should be greeted with a wailing and a gnashing of teeth since it usually portends the arrival of a new set of ideologically-driven, ill-thought-out, counter-productive, time-wasting and expensive recommendations. Such is the case with the recent offering – University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility – from Labour MP Alan Milburn, everybody’s favourite social mobility “expert”.

As you can see immediately from the title, the report is produced by people who should themselves be confined to a multicoloured but well-fenced kindergarten where they are given no more responsibility than to draw stick men with crayons on bits of paper which are then chucked in the bin at the end of the day.

The report is over 90 pages in length, but to save you the tedium of reading it let me tell what it all means, because it’s quite simple.

  • Firstly, schools are doing such a bad job that many pupils when they leave school are not at the right level either to be accepted by a university or to cope with it when they get there.
  • Secondly, universities rely heavily on the unreasonable method of looking primarily at a candidate’s exam results to judge whether they should be accepted.
  • Thirdly, the more prestigious the university the more rigorous and selective it is in choosing who they admit (this is elitism, a crime in progressive ideology, although the word doesn’t appear in the report – instead the code word “excellence” is used).
  • Fourthly, this has to be stopped because equality and fairness are more important than anything else; universities must therefore be compelled to take on more state school applicants from less well-off backgrounds even if they haven’t made the grade.

The report repeatedly acknowledges the shortcomings of secondary schooling in educating pupils to the right standards yet fails to reach the obvious conclusion: it’s the secondary schools that need to improve. When the universities point this out they’re slapped down rather haughtily: “Universities cannot simply blame schools for inequities in access.” As anyone in higher education can tell you, for well over a decade many institutions have had to incorporate a certain amount of remedial teaching into their first year programmes to bring students up to the required level. Clearly they ought to be teaching their students A-levels again. Or maybe they should just stop being so picky.

HAVING SPENT YEARS modifying exams so that increasing numbers of pupils end up with good grades Milburn and his mates now turn round and criticise universities for placing too much emphasis on them: “Over-reliance on A-level results,” they say, “engineers a distorted social intake”. Note the sneakiness of “over-reliance”. Notice also the assumption that social mobility is a primary purpose of higher education, as opposed to, well, education and research. Exams thus become another obstacle in the drive for equality and fairness.

There’s another worrying element to this demotion of the value of exams and achievement in general. Consider the weasel in this little thicket: “Often, particularly in public debate, an emphasis on excellence is confused with a sole focus on prior attainment”. How patronising. Achievement, in other words, means nothing; potential is all. Seems like all those exams are a waste of time. You can see why this appeals to politicians. If you judged most of them on their “attainments” they’d be hard put to find work as toilet cleaners. Judge them on their unrealised potential, however, and their worth is inestimable. To assume that the reality of demonstrated ability is worth less than some nebulous potential is surely one of the most asinine judgements one can make. No surprise that it turns up in a government document about education.

The report is replete with such asininities. There’s a mention of the coming abolition of the traditional Honours system and classes of degree, for instance, and a casual mention of the Education Maintenance Allowance, abolished by the current government – no mention being made that it was destined to be closed down by Labour in 2013. There’s the obligatory reference to a fake charity for back up, in this case Teach First. I use the term fake charity in its now accepted term to mean a charity that receives a large amount of its income from the government to lobby the government on its behalf or to act as its agent. A glance at the accounts of Teach First (2011) shows it has received substantial cash from the state.

There’s even a swipe at employers, for targeting recruitment from “too narrow a range of universities”, ie, the better ones. It doesn’t seem to occur to Milburn and his moronic mates that a) it’s up to businesses to make their own decisions and b) if they want the best graduates they’ll obviously go to the best universities first. In the truly Orwellian looking-glass world of the progressive mind such common sense actions are reprehensible.

LET’S BE QUITE clear what this is all about. The whole aim of this report is to attack the most prestigious educational institutions (ie Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group) for their elitism (ie for choosing the best qualified students). Universities will be compelled to take on students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have been failed by the secondary education system and are therefore unprepared in every way for higher education. The report repeats the mantra that universities “as autonomous institutions, should be able to determine their own admissions criteria” while laying out plans to deprive them of that ability.

This is statist mission creep: universities are to replace their primary purposes of research and education with the ideological aim of social engineering, in this case “social mobility”. Such moves, we are told by the experts, will result in more fairness and equality and thus, magically, a more prosperous society.

This is the steamroller heading for our universities, coming to flatten out education. Anything beholden to the state will be levelled. The sooner we get more private universities the better.

Michael Blackburn.



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Eugenius Onegin
Eugenius Onegin
9 years ago

The notion that universities are all about ‘education and research’ seems a little romantic, (sport science, hospitality studies or god help us creative writing seem less about education and research and more about providing a leisure activity for halfwits who otherwise would be on the dole or watching daytime TV). Much university training creates and inculcates society’s values; however much you may not like social mobility its the sort of widely held value that appeals throughout much of society. I wouldn’t worry over much though, the promotion of the idea of social mobility has rarely coincided with much in the… Read more »

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