Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Widening participation and unleashing talent

'More will mean worse', Lord Hailsham (or Quintin Hogg as he preferred, for then, to be known) observed when the Robbins Report recommended a massive expansion of British Higher Education in 1963.

Actually, and despite popular myth to the contrary, it hasn't. Today we have a much more professional, much more exciting, infinitely more varied and talented academy (and students) than ever before.

Anyone who's ever seen a class mix video, audio and text (as I have on my 'Britain and the Sea' wiki project) to make a presentation - in this case on sea shanties and ballads and their relevance to British life - will tell you how amazing some of the things students can do really are.

Can we imagine innovation in the universities of 1963? Not as readily.

Anyway... I suppose we should be asking: 'why is this'?

The main reason is that there isn't a fixed pool of ability in the population. Education is a social thing - its definition, what it 'really' is, changes over time. In the 1950s it was thought that perhaps five per cent of the age group were 'ready' for Higher Education. Now our debate is whether to stick at 45 per cent or surge upwards (via removing government caps on numbers) to something more like the 60 per cent we'd get if everyone who applied was given a place.

So it should come as no surprise that, grade for grade, comprehensive school pupils do better than private school pupils in terms of their attainment at university. Basically what we're saying here is that they come out with higher degree classes controlling for their A-Level results: so if you get ABB from a comprehensive, you're more likely to get a First than someone with ABB from Eton or Marlborough.

This is perhaps how we should see the Coalition's plans only to allow universities with really good records on Widening Participation to charge over GBP6,000. Actually, it's an incoherent policy, since Ministers seem to want only 'elite' universities to be able to charge that, but then single out one area in which they don't have a particularly good record asthe test of whether they can.

But leaving that aside, Widening Participation in HE is probably one of the best hopes for our society, for our economy, for productivity, for 'hard working families' as someone once called them to change their circumstances (and the country) for the better.

More will mean better.

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