Leading article: New targets mistaken

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The prediction by Professor Michael Beloff that Oxford will go private within 20 years rather than continue to be bossed around by the government shows just how riled the university is by the new performance indicators published last week.

The prediction by Professor Michael Beloff that Oxford will go private within 20 years rather than continue to be bossed around by the government shows just how riled the university is by the new performance indicators published last week. These produced new and higher benchmarks for the proportion of students from state schools that Oxford - and indeed Cambridge - should be admitting. Oxford's benchmark rose from 69 to 77.2 per cent, Cambridge's from 68 to 76.8 per cent. At present both fall more than 20 points below those figures: Oxford's proportion is 55.4 and Cambridge's is 57.6. Although universities are not penalised for falling below the official targets, the exercise is a powerful naming and shaming one. Universities loathe adverse publicity - particularly when it is government sanctioned.

Anyway, Oxford will have to negotiate an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access when it comes to charge top-up fees and, who knows, the new benchmark may be something that the university is required to move towards over time. So, the university is right to take it seriously. The argument by Professor Beloff, master of Trinity College, is that the Government is forcing universities such as his to take more state-school pupils at the expense of those from private schools. That is discriminatory, he says, if it means that Oxford is forced to take state-school applicants on lower A-level grades than those from independent schools. No one argues that Arsenal football club should hire more white players on the grounds that whites are under-represented on the side. The important thing is to hire those who are most talented.

The big question, of course, is how to detect the most talented. A-levels are a test of memory, organisation, hard work and intelligence. Many more students now get A grades at A-level than in the past: 20 per cent of all entries attract an A grade nowadays. The question is how much weight universities should attach to A-levels as against other aspects of the UCAS form, the school report, the personal statement, performance in other tests and at interview. Admissions to Oxford and Cambridge have been a mystery, and the unique selling point of many independent schools has been their ability to get their pupils into these ancient universities. The Government has been right to put pressure on them to find bright pupils from schools that would not normally produce Oxbridge candidates. But these new benchmarks are a mistake.

Comments