Stop blaming the ‘posh’ universities for inequality in education

Forget affirmative action, says Sami Mikhail; universities are right to recruit on academic merit

May 6, 2017
University application approved
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In 1993, I started secondary school at a place called Battersea Technology College. This was a school ranked 4,382nd in the UK league tables – that’s 18th from bottom.

I left school with four Cs, two Ds and one E grade. Today I hold a BSc, an MSc and a PhD. I am a highly qualified and poorly educated person (there is a difference).

My current job is as lecturer in earth sciences at the University of St Andrews. This is a university with the fifth-lowest proportion of state-school educated students in the UK. My current employer requests that prospective students obtain A-level grades ranging from AAB to AAA, (or AABB to AAAAB for Scottish-educated students sitting Highers).

The admissions office will consider other factors and qualifications, which can be applied to selection. Nonetheless, to my knowledge, no one I know of who graduated from Battersea Technology College in 1998, including myself, would have met the admission standards for a place as an undergraduate student at the University of St Andrews – where I now teach. Whose fault is that?

Who shoulders the blame?

A recent BBC article ran with “Cambridge University now has fewer privately educated students than universities such as Bristol, Durham and St Andrews, entry figures reveal”. This sort of article is vicious: it makes out that mainstream (non-specialist) universities such as Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Imperial College London and St Andrews are actively disregarding state-educated pupils.

As an insider, I can tell you that we are not.

To counter this state of play, the University of Bristol (where I used to work in a non-teaching capacity) will make offers two grades lower than the standard offer for applicants who have been at schools in the lowest-achieving 40 per cent for A-level results. I understand its proposal, and I partly support it.

However, as much as I admire this approach and the opportunities it provides, I also disagree with it on two counts (in addition to the fact that it is akin to an admission of guilt on the behalf of the university).

Point 1: There are many universities

The debate itself implies that one must attend one of the “posh” universities to acquire a fantastic and competitive education. This assumption is a fallacy.

It is worth stating that study at a posh university does not guarantee, and is not an essential prerequisite for, a successful career. There are many, many excellent centres of higher education in the UK outside those with low numbers of state-school educated students.

I, for one, did not acquire any of my three degrees from any of the aforementioned universities (BSc, Kingston University; MSc, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College; PhD, University College London). Yet the quality of my higher education was exceptional, and has proved to be competitive on a global scale.

Point 2: Meritocracy requires a more equal playing field

As a graduate of an underachieving school and a lecturer at a posh university, I do not support lowering entry requirements.

I can speak only for the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. Every year, we aim to enrol the best students – this means those in possession of the best secondary school education. End of.

Access to universities must remain meritocratic; there is no other way for academia to operate. Consequently, the currency of pupils at the gate is their grades, specifically the number of A to A* grades.

These grades translate to proven knowledge – but not intelligence. However, to read a degree at a university requires specific knowledge, and what is required is dependent on the university (there’s no national curriculum in higher education).

Someone who is lacking in knowledge might not succeed on a degree course that requires a certain and specific knowledge base to undertake it, and every university is set up for a different cohort of students with different backgrounds.

For example, some universities offer foundation year programmes; some offer top-up classes. However, these extra courses require financial investment to hire staff to deliver them, and this is not cost-effective for oversubscribed universities.

I acknowledge that the situation is not ideal, but what alternative is there? Bristol’s approach is admirable, but one could also argue that it is unjustifiably unfair on students who attended a good school and achieved straight As.

Let’s perform a thought experiment: what if your child attends a good school and get straight As, only to miss out on their first-choice university to someone who achieved lower grades at a lower-ranking school? Would that be fair? And fair to whom?

And if you think it is fair, then consider that discrimination is always fairer to one person, but never to to all. To presume that pupils who attend a high-ranking school should be curtailed to benefit pupils who attend low-ranking schools is, therefore, unfair.

On a personal note, I do not support affirmative action, or positive discrimination, in any form, because it is biased. I support equality and meritocracy, always.

I firmly believe that the vast majority of five-year-olds have a shot at becoming a well-paid professional (a lawyer, solicitor, medical doctor, academic or accountant, for example) should they wish to be. However, the next decade or so of life can seriously hinder, or increase, their chances of walking one of these professional paths.

The reason for this takes the form of a couple of unnaturally massive elephants in the room.

  1. There are some exceptionally terrible state schools in the UK
  2. The gap between top and bottom is unacceptably large

Combined, these are huge issues for our societal progress towards becoming a nation where self-determined social mobility is the reality.

There’s no question that a university degree can dramatically enhance the chances of the all people to improve their livelihood. This is especially true for the working classes (people like me), who can use a higher education to progress towards financial independence from the state.

The real problem is the differential

My own state school was exceptionally bad, but it serves a point. I attended one of the worst schools in the UK, but I now see, at first hand, what the best schools churn out (my students at St Andrews).

These students are well read, highly knowledgeable, engaged, openly curious, optimistic and comfortable with being geeks (the last trait was actively discouraged by the other pupils at my school).

I appreciate that someone has to be top and someone has to be bottom of all league tables – but the league tables are not the problem per se. The problem is the size of the divide between the two ends of the table.

It’s worth mentioning grammar schools at this stage, because a significantly vocal contingent within the current UK government seems to think that more grammars are conducive to social mobility. I do not agree.

The focus should not be on opening new high-performing state or grammar schools; it should be on raising the standard of existing schools and reducing the quality divide between those at the top and those at the bottom of the school league table.

I do not subscribe to the view that universities have a moral responsibility for the secondary school system, because this mantra requires an acceptance of the problem. I do not want to accept that the schools will always be as unequal as they are. As I see it, the real issue is not that secondary schools will always be unequal; rather, the problem is that the magnitude of the inequality is gargantuan.

This chasm must be dealt with directly, and with real intent.

Sami Mikhail is lecturer (assistant professor) in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of St Andrews.

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