Tiffany Jenkins: Act could make university a farce

Moves to 'flag' working class candidates to improve access risks removing standards. Picture: Jane Barlow
Moves to 'flag' working class candidates to improve access risks removing standards. Picture: Jane Barlow
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PLANS for what amounts to positive discrimination to help working-class people into tertiary education may well backfire, says Tiffany Jenkins.

When thinking about education, I like to re-read Margaret Forster’s touching family memoir Hidden Lives, because it speaks to the extraordinary impact university can have on a person. Forster was born to a working-class family in 1938, a time when the poor, especially women, did not often go to university. But Forster was bright. And she wanted more than what was on offer. Much more. As she writes, she was “raging and burning” to have a life different to the one experienced by women she knew.

It could apply unhelpful pressure on universities to address problems that would be better achieved by targeting social deprivation and inequality more broadly.

University was the way. Forster recalls: “I just wanted out of the life I was born into and university was the best exit from it.” Her father thought her ambition to go was “daft”; it “confused” her mother. Their daughter defied expectations and left behind the life predicted for her at birth, one that would have seen her working in the laundry or a shop, if she worked at all, by studying hard and getting a scholarship to Oxford.

University can change lives. It’s not simply that students leave the ivory towers employable by the better-paying professions, but also that education unlocks a world of new and challenging ideas. Study is not only likely to increase one’s pay-packet, as we hear too often today – as if this is the only reason to go – it exposes people to a wealth of knowledge.

It is great that Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees to go to Scottish universities. Fees have helped turn education elsewhere into a product that can be purchased. And free tuition makes it easier for everyone to be able to afford to go. But even so, university in Scotland is out of reach for too many: you are more likely to go to university if you are middle class than working class. As the First Minister pointed out this week, in a speech on the education system given to the David Hume Institute: “children from the most deprived fifth of communities make up only one seventh of university undergraduate intakes.”

Higher education is not suitable for everyone, but there is clearly a problem if background is what makes the difference, if social circumstances determine a place rather than ability. And this is the case. Especially so, it would appear, here. The Scottish Government’s analysis of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment tests concluded that “while socio-economic status is as likely as in other countries to affect students, the effect it has is likely to be greater than in other countries”.

The First Minister has pledged to tackle the attainment problem. This week, she announced the formation of a new Commission on Widening Access, which will take measures to ensure that those from the most deprived communities have the “same chance” of attending university as those from the wealthiest. “[It] will propose milestones, measure progress, and identify improvements. It will be central to ensuring our ambition of equal access within a generation becomes a reality.”

It sounds good. But before we cheer her on, let me air a few doubts. It could apply unhelpful pressure on universities to address problems that would be better achieved by targeting social deprivation and inequality more broadly. And it could distort the educative purpose of the university.

Universities already invest time and money in trying to widen access. Universities Scotland, the representative body for Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions, claims it is “embedded as core parts of their missions and strategic aims”.

Universities have outreach schemes, summer schools, student ambassadors and mentors in order to widen participation to under-represented social groups. They go into schools, colleges and community groups to raise ambitions. One programme, Educated Pass, run by Edinburgh University, works with local boys’ football teams; others concentrate on older adults. Some start at primary. In Glasgow, children as young as three have been targeted.

Institutions use contextual data to widen participation. This means “flagging” applicants who come from certain backgrounds: areas of disadvantage, where the secondary school is below the national average, if someone has been in care for over three months, or been involved in programmes organised to raise aspirations to attend university. Flagging doesn’t guarantee them a place, but it does means this information is taken into consideration. The University of ­St Andrews notes applicants still need to meet minimal requirements and that flagging is done to “complement and enhance existing selection mechanisms”. Flagging, according to the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions Programme, is “not ‘levelling down’ it is about seeking excellence: it is a way of identifying the ‘best applicants’ with the greatest potential and likelihood of a successful degree outcome”.

I am not so sure. What seems to be happening is that people from more disadvantaged backgrounds, or who have had a difficulty of some sort, are not expected to perform as well academically – and allowances are made to get them into university. I grant these are understandable allowances, but it is an unwise practice. In effect, an element of positive discrimination is taking place.

This can work in the favour of those young people who would thrive at university – and who should go – but it also, perhaps, permits a situation where they are not pushed to achieve what they could. And that means certain first-year students start out knowing less than they should, which it puts them at a disadvantage. Crucially, it lets schools off the hook. Schools then do not have to ensure that the smart but poor kids learn enough – and achieve decent grades – to get into university.

In attempting to close the attainment gap, we need to take care not to lower standards, for this will negatively impact on all students – and the very purpose of the university. Milestones, measuring progress and identifying improvements sound like good ideas, but pressure of this sort could do more harm than good.


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