Tom Wilson: Why we should stop knocking the universities

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Years ago British Leyland launched a car with a square steering wheel. A brave idea, it was, sadly, greeted with derision and quickly withdrawn. BL managers blamed the public for being too conservative. Meanwhile, the Japanese carried on selling people what they wanted. BL later went bankrupt, doubtless still blaming the public. David Hargreaves is adviser to Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, on 14-19 qualifications. Last week he warned universities that if the proposed new 14-19 Diploma failed it would be their fault. University snobbery would be to blame, not the Diploma. Remind you of anything?

At almost the same time Margaret Hodge, the higher education minister, made the headlines with a call for universities to lower their A-level entry requirements for deprived youngsters – as Bristol does. Her argument was that three Bs from a tough comprehensive should count as much as three As from a posh private school. Both comments raise the stakes in the relationship between schools and universities. While universities remain autonomous, governments and their special advisers can only exhort.

The two issues are very different. Oxbridge and other sought-after universities are now taking applicants from inner city comprehensives with lower grades because they do as well, or better, than those from independent schools with top grades. Many more universities would probably follow suit but running a good admissions policy takes time and money. Few students these days even get an interview. Small wonder so many universities can rely only on crude A-level predictions. One idea might be for the most popular universities to take the top five per cent of any schools in their immediate urban area – as does the University of Southern California. Margaret Hodge is right to urge more attention to background. University customers should buy her message because it works.

Professor Hargreaves's argument is different. We should not repeat the fate of Key Skills – a recently introduced practical post GCSE qualification aimed at counteracting the theoretical bias of A-levels, he claims. Universities have not found Key Skills useful. Ergo, Key Skills rarely figure in offers or admissions criteria. Consequently, sixth forms and colleges don't make Key Skills compulsory. So many students don't take them. Hargreaves blames the universities.

Of course it is much more complicated. Many admissions staff (particularly in the new universities and higher education colleges) like the idea of Key Skills. But because not all students take them, staff prefer the universal currency of A-levels. Few students can take Key Skills seriously because the pressure of the new AS-and A-level curriculum leaves little time for anything not absolutely essential. That is the problem, not university snobbery.

If the new Diploma fails, the same lack of time will be the reason, not university conservatism or élitism. These practicalities are what doom well-intentioned government initiatives. Look at the timetable. Students sit their GCSEs in May or June, then have three months off. Returning to sixth form or college in September, they have about seven months of teaching before AS-levels. That seven months is also when they are in a whirlwind of change; from school to college, from teenager to young person and when they get a regular part-time job. Many teachers say it takes until November before students have learnt to cope with a new lifestyle. Many simply drop out.

Sports, voluntary work and so on have gone by the board with reform of A-levels. Astonishingly, Hargreaves defends the new Diploma by saying it is designed to record such activity. Universities would welcome such a record – but if extramural activity is not happening the Diploma will not make it happen. The Government says it wants parity of esteem between vocational and academic. So did the 1944 Education Act, which introduced grammar schools and secondary moderns. Bristol and other universities adjust grades for background because it works, if done carefully. Universities will doubtless consider the 14-19 Diploma. But it will work only if schools have time and money to introduce it, if students think it makes sense and if it records what they can do. If it fails, don't blame the universities.

The writer is head of the universities department at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education