Inherited problems that an inclusivity agenda can't solve

February 4, 2005

In my first disorientated weeks at university, I felt frustrated that some students didn't care much about being here. I was reminded that there was a 20-year age gap between me and them, and then it all made sense.

But some students (and not just school-leavers) do seem to arrive without the basic skills to tackle academic inquiry. Literacy - and with it the confidence and ability to construct arguments - can be very poor.

A friend, a senior academic at another university, tells me that skills and motivation are a national problem. I wonder if this problem is made more difficult to tackle by the inclusivity agenda that is so "right on" that it is hard to challenge? If you start from the basic argument that the way this agenda is used to legitimise the targeting of resources for political reasons damages universities' core function, people seem to get uneasy.

It's old news, but we're talking about an old system trying to adapt to crappy government ideologies to survive.

I've always agreed with equality of opportunity and it still makes sense to me to make university education available to everyone - if they want it.

This is not the same as making a degree course mandatory and the lowest acceptable qualification for employability. That is anti-diversity.

Universities now have to accept the softening of excellence to take on all comers. Equality of opportunity is not the same as making us all the same.

In my role as mature student representative, I've found that a main concern of older students is lack of discipline among younger undergraduates and a frustration that not much seems to be being done about it. Is the system so afraid of losing people that it has to bend the rigour of discipline and excellence to suit the balance sheet?

Assuming, reluctantly, that economics defines universities' flexibility around admissions, are there better ways to deal with the problems this causes? For instance, mature students, who often have more of a vested interest in their course, could be great role models for other students.

This is a potentially unpopular suggestion, as areas such as discipline and standards are the professional's territory. And for change to be effective, everyone would need to be on board.

Yet it remains the case that skills and behavioural difficulties arrive with students. They are not created by universities but by poor primary and secondary education, so why should universities have to deal with them? Shouldn't they refuse to take on students who are simply not up to the job?

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