Real solutions or cheap fixes?

The debate over the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon to become the new Head of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) extends far beyond the pros and cons of Professor Ebdon’s own candidacy.  It goes right to the heart of the coalition and a fundamental difference between competing political views.

Some in the coalition express understandable regret that a student in an independent school is 55 times more likely to gain a place at Oxbridge than a student in receipt of free school meals.  For such politicians this injustice needs instant rectification, and the fastest and cheapest means of achieving this is to skew university admissions to favour of those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Opposing politicians argue that such a solution replaces a socio-economic injustice with an academic one.  Is it fair that students with poorer grades should be awarded university places in preference to those with better academic profiles?  Putting academic injustice to one side, is it in the nation’s, students’ or universities’ interests for undergraduate courses to admit applicants who lack the skills and abilities needed to make a success of degree level of study?

Skill gaps can be filled, but educational deficiencies that have developed over 15 years of primary and secondary schooling are not easily rectified in three or four years at university, especially in institutions not resourced to provide the small group ‘catch up’ teaching required.  In all the talk of lowering university admissions standards for disadvantaged groups there is little recognition of the consequent need to increase university funding to provide additional teaching and support to help under qualified youngsters successfully adapt to the rigours of higher education.  The only other option is to dumb down degrees, but reducing university standards is no way to educate a nation or remain competitive in the international knowledge economy.

I can quite understand why Professor Ebdon wants to improve university access now before another generation misses out on higher education.  However, the harsh reality is that lowering entry requirements is likely to cause more problems than it solves.  Undergraduates may struggle on courses they cannot cope with, drop-out rates could rise, students may acquire debts but no degree, and university staff could rebel against the heavy hand of central government interference.  Disadvantaged children deserve genuine educational solutions that work not sham quick fixes.  This means a first class schooling from nursery onwards.  It is expensive, it is time consuming, but it works.  The Perse has nearly 400 years of such history, and through its means tested bursary programme, it gives disadvantaged children an outstanding education and a real leg up in life that will last.

Ebdon confirmed as university access chief – BBC News
I’ll get places for the poor, says new university access watchdog – The Independent
Russell Group attacks university admissions targets – The Telegraph
Cable questioned over appointment of Les Ebdon as university access tsar – The Guardian
Comment: Simon Carr – Ebdon won his elite place though he failed the exam – The Independent
Blog: University access should be based on merit – but how do you measure it? – The Guardian

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