The negative side to too much postive discrimination

Just how far should universities go in luring students without glittering A-level grades from tough comprehensives into their lecture theatres?
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Access is the great issue of our time. How to expand the pool of people entering higher education, particularly students from poor families? It's a bandwagon New Labour set in motion - and one which was given a massive extra shove earlier this year when Chancellor Gordon Brown condemned Oxford University's decision not to offer a place to comprehensive school-educated Laura Spence.

Access is the great issue of our time. How to expand the pool of people entering higher education, particularly students from poor families? It's a bandwagon New Labour set in motion - and one which was given a massive extra shove earlier this year when Chancellor Gordon Brown condemned Oxford University's decision not to offer a place to comprehensive school-educated Laura Spence.

Today, university vice-chancellors meeting in Durham will be treated to more of the same in speeches from the Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, and the president of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), Professor Howard Newby.

The big question, however, is how far universities should go in luring students without glittering A-levels who come from tough comprehensive schools into their lecture theatres. To what extent should admissions tutors lower entry standards? Such positive discrimination has been outlawed at the University of California, but it happens in the United Kingdom. In the course of researching an article on access to the law this summer, I discovered that law professors tinker with admissions standards as a matter of routine.

Professor Jeffrey Jowell, dean of the law school at University College London, said: "We assume that someone from a deprived background who has been to a rough school and gets three Cs at A-level is as good as someone who has been to an élite school and got three As." The law school at the London School of Economics also drops its standards - though to a lesser extent - in the belief that students from deprived comprehensives have not been as well prepared as those from swanky private schools. Cambridge's law dons reduce grades to three Bs at A-level for disadvantaged students, according to Stuart Bridge, admissions tutor at Queens'.

Is this right? No, says Martin Stephen, head of Manchester Grammar School, the famous independent school. "We have a system designed to test the level of achievement of students. It's called A-levels. It's as fair and objective as you can be. If you don't accept it, you may as well not have an exam at all."

Nick Tate, the new headmaster of Winchester and former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is also worried, believing that the practice throws up major issues of fairness: "We could end up taking people into higher education who are so far behind that they can't benefit from it."

Some professors are also concerned, arguing that lower entry standards patronise the less well-off, tarnish the value of a degree and could lead to a backlash. Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, believes it's unfair to lower entry standards, and queries whether there should be any positive discrimination at all for disadvantaged groups. The reason people from low socio-economic groups are not getting to university in the same numbers as the better-off is that they are being badly served by their schools.

"It's quite a bit to do with how much money is getting to those schools and how much they're able to attract teachers," he says. "The way to address this is within the schools and making sure there are sufficient resources and that students feel sufficiently competent to apply to university within their range of abilities. If you start tinkering on the admissions side, you are likely to create larger injustices."

Behind the new push for access lie some uncomfortable facts. The proportion of working-class students going to university has remained stubbornly low for decades. The offspring of the less well-off have not signed up for degrees despite student grants (which lasted for 40 years but have now been abolished) and the great boost that a degree gives to earnings.

The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that the proportion of students from poor families going to university has risen only marginally over the past six years. Last year, 21 per cent of students accepted onto degree courses came from the wealthiest group (11 per cent of all households) compared with 21.9 per cent in 1994. The figure for the poorest group (6.6 per cent of all households) was 2.9 per cent.

That is why many experts applaud the positive discrimination being shown by universities in the new political climate.

"I strongly support it," says Tom Wilson, head of the universities department at the lecturers' union Natfhe (the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education). "It upholds the cherished tradition that you recruit by ability not by affluence. Three Cs at A level from an inner-city comprehensive may well be comparable to two As at a private school. These admissions tutors are not deliberately trying to skew entry standards in order to increase the intake of poorer kids. All they are doing is being strictly impartial and recognising that kids at inner-city comprehensives inevitably have a poorer education than those who go to private schools."

Professor Newby, CVCP president, pooh-poohs the idea that universities are doing anything very new or unusual, pointing out that they have never admitted students by some formula restricted to A-level grades but have always taken into account other factors. "Universities have always been flexible," he says. "A-level grades are important in admissions but they are only one element and are used in combination with other things."

Everyone is in favour of less drastic forms of positive discrimination, including summer schools for disadvantaged teenagers, and universities developing links with schools which have not traditionally fed students to them.

Mr Blunkett is expected to develop this theme today in his speech. Senior government sources said he was adamant that entry grades should not be relaxed in the name of access. Instead he believes the leading universities (apart from Oxford and Cambridge which have been busting their guts) should do more to encourage applications from bright comprehensive school pupils.

In his speech, Mr Blunkett is likely to cite all the money that the universities have been given for access and ask them what they have to show for it. Labour politicians believe - with some justification - that the top universities have been complacent about the matter until recently.

Such access programmes are important. But they may not be able to tackle the real issue - the low numbers of poorer people choosing to go to university at all. There is a problem with demand for higher education in the United Kingdom. University places are going begging.

That is why some experts wonder whether you can do much about access. "I really don't see where the new access students are going to come from," says Professor Gareth Williams, of London's Institute of Education. "I would rather see more money going into further education so that more people can become plumbers."

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