First things first

February 28, 2013

Alan Ryan is quite right in advocating an emphasis on primary education (“Build from the ground up”, Opinion, 14 February). When the old Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals first supported rapid expansion of the numbers entering UK higher education, some questioned the policy, arguing that resources should be put into primary and secondary education first. If this resulted in more people being well qualified and wanting a university education, the academy’s expansion would be necessary and justified.

But the vice-chancellors saw expansion as a way of maintaining total income in the face of reduced units of resource. Of course, this was dressed up (rather cynically) as “enhancing opportunities” and “widening participation”, but the result was a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up students, many of whom required remedial help once they started university.

There is no doubt that far more are capable of performing well at university than were admitted in the early 1980s, but it would have been more sensible to improve education for all and see how many were ready and willing to continue to higher education. Fixing arbitrarily on a figure of 50 per cent, or whatever, has put undue emphasis on gaining a university place and a stigma on the half of the population who don’t make it and whose alternative needs are attributed lower status.

Norman Gowar

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