Thursday, October 19, 2006

Leave universities alone

A 'brilliant' initiative to address the low standards of education in the state sector. Dumbing down examinations is no longer enough. Neither is the strategy of bribing our sullen youth to stay on at school. No amount of Connexions card points will motivate a wild-eyed lout to go to university. So what is a caring Government to do?

The 'solution' is presented in a report by education quango Aimhigher. The good folk there believe it would be a wonderful idea if universities can do a bit more to 'widen access' to higher education. They would like universities to be given background information about candidates so that, in some cases, they may impose lower entry requirements, from an A grade to a C grade, for 'deserving' candidates. These include candidates from poorly performing schools.

It is not clear whether Government will adopt Aimhigher's proposals but nothing will surprise me. It is one thing to suggest that a candidate's background be taken into account, but to suggest that different academic standards should apply to those from disadvantaged backgrounds is something else altogether. What is the point in admitting students who are clearly below the required standard? University tutors already have a hard enough time teaching remedial English to the so-called bright sparks who turn up clutching A* grades, but cannot spell to save their lives. What hope, then, for the C grade students who are smuggled in by the back door?

There is a wider point here, relating to State control of universities. Should the State really have that much say in a university's admissions policy? Most decent universities already exercise discretion in admitting students who may not have made the grade, but whom they consider deserving of a place. There is no need for the Government to interfere to this extent.

The only reason that this happens is because universities are dependent on Government funding. Even with the freedom to charge tuition fees, because these are capped at £3,000, universities still need supplemental funding from the Government. In addition, any university charging top-up fees has to contend with any requirements set out by the Office for Fair Access. This compromises any independence that such universities may otherwise have had. Perhaps it would be a good idea for some of them to cut the apron strings and go their way. The current policy of capped tuition fees is far from ideal for everybody. It makes a mockery of the Government's claims to introduce 'choice' into the provision of higher education. If tuition fees were uncapped, however, universities would have complete discretion over what fees to charge, and they could ignore with impunity any mad counter-productive diktats from above.
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