Remedial treatment 1

August 31, 2007

Alan Ryan presents what has become an orthodox, mildly covert critique of the post-1992 new university sector (Opinion, August 17). He suggests that this sector, although he avoids naming it explicitly, is engaged less with degree-level education and involved more with giving "remedial secondary education".

First, there is evidence that achieving poor A levels does not mean one cannot do extremely well in terms of later degree class. Why not respect the huge added value that university can offer by bringing out the potential of those with historically weak academic attainment due to their socioeconomic circumstances?

Second, given the strong public school dimension of the population at Oxbridge, it remains contentious that although members of this social tribe might not require "study skills" they do require this system to be their finishing school to help legitimate the dubious thesis of Francis Galton that they are naturally superior anyway.

Third, as Pierre Bourdieu has argued, mastery of examinations set by prestigious institutions conveys a habitus that may have a merely tenuous relationship with the real intellectual calibre of the individual.

I recall many years ago sitting a Cambridge entrance exam at St John's College that contained the question: "If the cosmic telephone rings, should mankind answer?" Such questions reveal more about a candidate's schooling and social class than anything else. Therefore, at many points in his article, which is rich with the discourse of clique, Ryan perpetuates the begging of fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of higher education as well as the criteria we use to estimate its worth and societal contribution.

Chris Holligan
Senior lecturer, School of Education
Paisley University Joan Percival Retired, Southampton

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