Saturday, 22 May 2010

Who should go to university?

The short answer, I suppose, is 'anyone who is suitably qualified and who can benefit from the experience of studying for a degree.' The required qualifications depend on the chosen degree programme and university, and these days can easily be found on institutional websites. As for the second part of the answer, 'who can benefit....', one would think in terms of motivation, willingness to work hard (no one ever said that university study was supposed to be easy - though occasionally I have encountered students still harbouring such a misconception), and a fair amount of self confidence. One should also never forget the crucial factors of luck and serendipity in influencing both which university to apply for and attend, and the course to pursue.

In my own case, for instance, no one in my family had ever been to university before and it was hard to find out much about them in pre-internet days - I was applying in 1963 to start university in 1964. So where should I go? The only university I knew anything about was Hull, my local institution, but most of us at that stage at my school were thinking of going somewhere away from home. I don't think we were especially rebellious, but getting away was definitely seen as an important part of growing up. So we had nothing against Hull except that it was home.

As it happened I had two particularly good maths teachers, one who had studied at Cambridge, the other with a degree from Manchester. They each told me that their respective universities were good for maths, and as I certainly had no reason to dispute their judgement, I applied for both. My school qualifications (including Latin, still needed for Cambridge then), all top grades, got me a quick offer from Manchester, but Cambridge turned me down - in those days no reasons were ever given, and perhaps that is still the position. However, I still had the option of applying for Cambridge directly and taking their own entrance examination, and this is what I decided to do. This, and my entrance interview, took place in Cambridge on a couple of damp, cold, November days that made the whole place look quite grim and unwelcoming. Some weeks later I heard that I had been accepted. I immediately left school, got a job and worked for nine months before starting my studies - more on this in a later post.

My parents were delighted as Cambridge was a university they had heard of, so they thought it was probably OK to go there. My mother even thought that I might meet a princess, but I never did - in that respect my years in Cambridge were not a success.

Not everyone follows the conventional route into university that I did. All sorts of personal, family, health and other reasons can get in the way of gaining the standard qualifications at the 'normal' time. At age 18 or 19, some people simply lack the motivation to take their studies any further, even if they clearly have the necessary ability. Many people lack the confidence, or imagine they might not fit into a university environment. Some schools - that should know better - are reluctant to encourage even their better pupils to apply to university, let alone to the top institutions. And without that crucial support, opportunities are missed, talent wasted or not developed to its full potential.

For these reasons, the widening availability of so called 'access courses', mostly run in Further Education (FE) colleges and often in partnership with a local university is a hugely important step forward. Lots of people who didn't do well enough at school - for whatever reason, it doesn't really matter - get a second chance to gain the qualifications needed for university entry. Access courses don't generally seek to replicate the material that would have normally been done in secondary school, but they do develop English, Maths, IT and other foundation subjects that are vital for most university courses. Successful students from these programmes are older and usually more mature than the typical school-leaver students, and are often very highly motivated to succeed. They do well.

This part of the 'access agenda' is therefore very valuable and easy to support. Another aspect, however, is more problematic, in my view. Our universities, especially the leading ones, are often criticised for taking 'too few' students from state schools as opposed to private ones; and for taking too few from certain relatively deprived areas of the country. Some funding is even available to encourage (or 'incentivise', to use a horrible modern term) them to give more weight in their admissions criteria to indicators of deprivation. It's not hard to see a rationale for this sort of approach, but it seems to me to be a very dangerous, slippery slope, that tries to put right one sort of injustice by creating new ones. I don't think it is, or should be, any part of the duty of a university to assist the government in the conduct of social policy. That's not what universities are there for, surely.

If the government thinks that secondary schools in some areas are failing in some sense, then it should be taking direct and appropriate action to remedy the identified deficiencies. Meanwhile, our universities should concentrate on their core tasks of educating suitably qualified students to first degree level and beyond. That's what the country needs.

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