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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Poor Elite

So the government is shocked and surprised that Universities want to use the new fees system to recover all the money they lost through the HE funding cuts. Most V-Cs seem to think that a charge of 7.5k to 8k would allow them to balance the books again, and many of the UKs stronger Unis think that its an opportunity to charge a prestigious 9k and effectively get an extra 1k per student to improve the student experience (after all, if they didn't students would be paying 5k more for the same old same old).

I suspect that deep down we all feel the same way about the Coalition
But the government has also attached a caveat that Unis that want to charge the maximum amount must demonstrate that they are admitting more students from poorer background and thus widening access.

I'm all for this, Universities are one of the big engines of social mobility (that's one of the reasons they are deserving of public money) - but I hate the way that the question is posed, as if Admissions Tutors were devilishly working to exclude all the poor people, racked with snooty laughter as they tossed the state school UCAS applications into the reject bin.

Well, I'm a Senior Admissions Tutor and run our Computer Science Admissions process alongside a small team of colleagues - and I deeply resent the government's tone and implication. It's disingenuous to what is one of the last truly meritocratic processes left in our country and hides what the government is actually asking Universities to do - which is to apply policies of positive discrimination.

I want to be clear, I'm not against positive discrimination, it has its place in overturning prejudice. But I also want to be clear that in this case there is no prejudice. The fact is that if you meet our standard offer then we will offer you a place, it doesn't matter who you are, what colour, age, sexuality or class, good grades will get you in. The problem happens before people get to the University, the problem is that who you are impacts on your ability to get good grades at School.

We can try and fix this problem - it involves pumping more money into the state school system, reducing class sizes and increasing the variety of education given to children. Teachers know this, they are professionals and do the best with what they are given, but I suspect that politicians don't want to acknowledge it.

We can give up and live with it - after all no matter how much money you throw in it will always be possible for the richest people in society to pay more, and thus one supposes, to get a better experience.

We can patch up the cracks and ask Universities to positively discriminate (to correct the effect rather than solve the cause) - this gives the Universities a difficult balancing job to do and also means that some students starting at the same University will be stronger than others (and of course that some weaker students will be chosen over stronger ones). Such is the nature of positive discrimination.

Elitism and meritocracy are unavoidable linked - especially since in a national context it is impossible to guarantee everyone the same opportunity to demonstrate their merit - so there's a good debate to be had here. But we're not going to get it if the government continues to dodge the issue by implying that University Admissions are the problem that needs to be fixed. They aren't.

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