More bad news for higher education

Graduation by Colin Howley

Graduation by Colin Howley

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat deputy leader and government advisor on access to higher education, has revealed plans to reform universities as reported in the Guardian and the Telegraph.

My message to the universities is: You have gained quite a lot in the settlement. Yes, you’ve lost lots of state money, but you’ve got another revenue stream that’s going to protect you.

Part of his plan is to force universities to accept more students from state schools to try to redress the balance within the student population, given that only 7% of pupils attend private schools yet private school pupils make up 25% of the student population at Russell Group universities and nearly 50% at Oxford. And the method for achieving this: Increased financial support for state school pupils to help with the massive increase in fees just announced? No. More help in preparing students for university, to help them achieve the necessary grades? No. More opportunities to develop life skills? No. In fact, rather than any sort of supportive measures, Hughes advocates an arbitrary cap on pupils from private schools, forcing universities to accept students from state schools regardless of their achievements. In other words, lowering the bar.

I agree wholeheartedly that more pupils from state schools should have the opportunity of going to university but this approach is simply ridiculous. Good pupils from private schools will be refused entry purely on the basis they went to a private school. At the same time, pupils from state schools will be treated as charity cases and given university places not on merit but because they went to a state school. This is the worst of all worlds.

Entry to university should be based on merit. If there is an issue with pupils from state schools not being accepted at universities, then that would suggest more support is needed in enabling pupils from state schools to reach their full potential. Entry is not entirely based on academic ability either; universities look for a range of aptitude including broader interests and social skills. Having worked at a Russell Group university and undertaken the UCAS interviews, background was not considered at all, rather the roundedness of the applicant, their grades and their potential were the sole relevant criteria. As such, potential students from state schools need to be given opportunities to develop themselves whilst at school in preparation for university; this is where private schools with their broad range of extra-curricula activities, sports and social facilities and programmes do indeed give their pupils an advantage. In addition to this, the smaller class sizes and strict discipline at private schools are bound to have an effect on grades achieved; an atmosphere conducive to learning will naturally result in a better learning experience. And having support staff on hand to guide pupils through the UCAS application process, where the pupils are supported every step of the way in getting a university place, is another advantage for pupils from private schools. So, one way to improve the balance amongst university students would be to provide a level playing field for entry to university through giving state school pupils more resources to allow them to compete with pupils from private schools.

Also, when discussing Oxbridge in particular, many state schools will not enter pupils for admission. I know a number of people from state school backgrounds who have gone on to become very successful in their chosen careers yet when they were looking at university options, were advised by their career advisors that Oxbridge was ‘not for them.’ If the balance is to change, more talented people from state schools need to be entered for admission at the very least.

So, I for one am thoroughly disheartened by this latest bit of Liberal Democrat nonsense. The party that promoted itself as the party capable of representing students has once again demonstrated that they are incapable of improving our education system, hot on the heels of their U-turn on tuition fees, the massive increase in which is surely one of the biggest barriers to university entry amongst the very constituency they are now forcing universities to draw more students from.