Sunday, 13 February 2011

Ability, Motivation, Potential

What is it that gets young people (or older people, for that matter) into a university? I've always thought that the two most important things are ability and motivation.

Ability itself is never enough, as for most people being smart in some sense doesn't in and of itself mean either that you can do something or that you know much. Initial ability, or signs of ability or talent, have to be nurtured and worked at in order to flourish, and in order to reach the level that corresponds to the normal starting point of a university level degree course.

So for ability to mean much, it usually has to be combined with a good deal of sheer hard work to develop it to its full potential. Some of this is fun, some will be sheer grind - but the reward is the amazing satisfaction that comes from achieving something thought to be difficult, like learning a foreign language, discovering that maths is really exciting.

Parents and other adults (such as inspiring teachers) often encourage and stimulate their children to develop whatever talents they appear to possess, whether these be academic or something totally different like sport, or a technical skill such as wood-working or cookery. Such encouragement often helps to instil the disciplines of hard work and regular practice into whatever activity the young person is seeking to master, but in the end, the motivation to continue and further develop the activity has to come from inside the person. After all, once someone goes away from home to college, university or whatever, parents or teachers are no longer around to provide encouragement, and any motivation simply has to be internal.

To this point, then, we can see the importance of ability and motivation in getting young people to study, to pass the needed school exams, and prepare themselves for university entry. It is then up to the universities to decide whom to accept, given the various offerings from potential students who apply. This has always been the normal course of events, at least until fairly recently.

For nowadays this whole area is becoming more complicated and contentious. What is complicating the admissions system is the idea that universities should, when deciding whom to admit, try to judge not only what the applicant can already offer in terms of ability and achievement, but also try to assess the applicants' potential.

In some ways this is not a new idea. For example, aside from the normal entry path via the standard qualifications, many universities have linked up with colleges running access courses in recent years. These are for students who, for whatever reason, didn't get the right qualifications at school. A college-based access course doesn't quite replicate what they might have done at school, but the aim is generally to bring the students concerned up to a level where they can cope academically with the demands of a university course; access courses generally include study of English and mathematics as a minimum. These courses have helped quite a number of people to get into university, and these students have sometimes done very well. Thus universities have shown themselves to be quite flexible in terms of being willing to judge applicants' potential on the basis of diverse qualifications.

But going beyond this is surely not such a great idea. For instance, why should a university give a place to a poorly qualified person from a 'difficult background' over someone much better qualified? It doesn't make sense. Yet there are proposals floating about now that this is exactly what universities should do, and that they might even be penalised in some way if they don't. I think this is a crazy idea, not least because I can't imagine how some regulator can ever judge applicants' true potential better than the universities themselves.

This issue could lead into a lengthy discussion, but I shall confine myself to making two points.

(1) The first was made for me by Alice Thomson (Times, February 9th 2011), where she argued that what is really critical for young people is to be inspired at school, and encouraged to aim high, from an early age. She is absolutely right, but one all too often gets the impression that many schools are not very ambitious for their pupils, don't have high expectations of them, and hence achieve weak results. Quite aside from what is good for the individual pupils, we live in a tough competitive world and we need all our young people to learn the disciplines of hard work, building up their skills and achieving their full potential. Unfortunately, when politicians talk about this it often comes over as just another slogan. But it is not. So school - and the family, I would add - is where young people should be drawing their inspiration, developing their talents, and where it is right for them, preparing for university.

(2) The second point is that universities are not properly resourced to bring up to their full potential students who are not well prepared for university in the first place. It is not, or should not be, their job to undertake this sort of social engineering. That said, it has become more common in the past decade or so for universities to provide remedial maths and English courses for those students who, despite having good grades in relevant school subjects, still struggle in these areas. This reflects rather badly on the standard of these school qualifications nowadays, it seems to me. Beyond this, though, would be quite hard to manage. Some universities have even suggested that if they had to take many students who were under-qualified, then they would have to extend degree programmes by an extra year - and who is supposed to pay for that?

Thinking about all this, it seems to me that some of the current ideas about university admissions, particularly to bring yet more social engineering into our universities, are not very sensible and need to be reconsidered. The new ideas are likely to be costly, and I greatly doubt their academic merit.

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