Monday, February 20, 2012

Vince Cable right to hold firm over Professor Les Ebdon and Offa

The row over the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon as the new head of the Office for Fair Access (Offa) - Vince Cable was called to the Commons today over it and by all accounts acquitted himself well - has its roots in the huge expansion of higher education.

Back in the 1970s, as a comprehensive pupil who was eligible for free school meals and armed only with a rather ropey set of O level results, I applied to five good universities. I was interviewed by four of the five (the fifth made me a generous offer without interview), and two of those interviews involved writing essays while I was in the department. At the end of the process I had five offers, including on of two Es.

I doubt this could happen today, and an article by John Springford on the Social Market Foundation website
Academics have less and less time to run a thorough application process. The more resources the application process uses, the less cash they have for other priorities. The Research Assessment Exercise [RAE] encourages them to focus on research, rather than undergraduate administration. And they don’t suffer any financial penalty if their degree outcomes are poor – although they do suffer reputational damage. For this reason it is rational for them to focus on A-levels.
So it is the climate the government has created through the RAE that has led to the current obsession with predicted A level grades. Maybe setting up Offa is a typical example of government spending more in an attempt to undo the damage wrought by its original spending, but if that climate is going to change then it looks as though it will have to be the government that does it.

Critics of Ebdon's appointment, and of Offa in general, have cried "social engineering," claiming that the product of good schools will be disadvantaged. To an extent they are right: some products of good (which to most critics turns out to mean private) schools will suffer from a fairer system - and Springford goes on to point out why.

He reproduces a graph published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England which maps the percentage of students obtaining good degrees (a 2:1 or better) against the A level results they had previously achieved:
It shows the proportion of university students who got a 2:1 or first by the grades they got at A-Level. State educated pupils do a lot better given their A-level result – the gap in the proportion getting good degrees is between 3 and 10%, depending on what A-levels the students achieved.
Springford goes on to ask why privately educated children don't do better:
Private schools are notoriously good at getting children into university. Exam results are better on average. They offer interview practice and more help with applications. But once at university, this help disappears, so private school students revert to their inherent ability. The gap that opened up between state and privately educated students in secondary education closes at university.
He concludes that Offa may be doing the universities a favour if it pressures universities into accepting more students from state schools.

And this shouldn't surprise us. Anyone recruiting teenagers to a sports team or a theatre group would naturally be interested in future potential as much as achievement to date. Why should education be any different? In fact, there is something wrong with, even ridiculous about, an education system that is not concerned with potential.

Parents send their children to private schools because they tend to be good schools and they want the best for their children. But parents also pay the fees because they think that a private education will give their children advantages over state-educated children of equal or even greater ability. So the idea that the existence of Offa is somehow unfair is nonsense. Those who hold it merely demonstrate how quickly privilege turns into a sense of entitlement.

I would rather see this challenged by universities having the time and incentive to expend more effort on the admissions process, even if that means accepting fewer students - modern undergraduates are being promised more from higher education that it can ever deliver. But I will accept Offa as a second best.

One final point. Vince Cable went to the Commons today because the universities minister David Willetts was "detained in Antartica". (Yes, really.)

That was just as well judging to his response that Oxbridge students might be asked to study for an MA rather than talk loudly in restaurants for a couple of years and then write a small cheque:
"Those MAs have been around for hundreds of years. They are well understood and they are an established part of the history of these institutions. Perhaps the opposition's rootless rationalism means they have no taste or love for those conventions and traditions that have developed over centuries, but we rather like ancient traditions."
I hope the penguins get him.


Tabman said...

It would be far better if state schools could produce pupils as well prepared as the private schools for university entrance. Until the mid 1970s they did.

Jonathan Calder said...

I agree with you, but I think there was still an element of private schools still producing people to run the Empire then.

These days the rewards they offer to parents are more nakedly financial. So however much we improve state schools, there will still be private schools offering more to those who can pay for it.

James said...

The problem is that the universities with the most rigorous interview and selection processes - Oxford and Cambridge - have easily the worst record of letting in students from state schools, and generally low-income families. I think things would probably be worse without the raft of aptitude tests and interviews, but it's by no means a silver bullet.

Tabman said...

James - I'm sorry, but that's a meaningless comment, and totlaly unsubstantiated. "Have the worst record of letting in students from state schools." Oxford and Cambridge can only select from the pool of applicants who apply to them. Many state school pupils self-select not to, often encouraged by some kind of perverse inverse snobbery from their teachers (which was showcased recently in that highly dispiriting article in the TES). Then you have the situation where A-Level grade inflation means there are many times as many 3-A pupils as there are Oxbridge places. This means that admissions has to be about more than simply meeting the entry tarrif. It has to be about academic potential (and the interviews and aptitude tests are designed to uncover this) and about applicants' potential to contirbute to the life of their college community. On the simple basis of the set of all pupils with three As who actually apply to Oxford and Cambridge, state school pupils are admitted in proportion - and don't forget that the few remaining state grammar schools are over-represented in this sample for obvious reasons.

Tabman said...

Jonathan - the simple and obvious solution is to "nationalise"* the private schools,as the Sutton Trust advocates:

* - open access to all based on merit with means-tested fees paid for by the government