Introducing a “large comprehensive element” to higher education and “desegregating Britain’s universities” would bring widespread educational and social benefits, according to a report by a vice-chancellor.
In a paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute published on 20 July, Middlesex University vice-chancellor Tim Blackman suggests that academic selection has “gone too far” and now “compounds Britain’s social class inequities”, proposing that a levy could be imposed on institutions with “imbalanced” social class intakes to drive change.
His paper challenges the consensus around the social mobility agenda, which holds that a key goal of policy should be to foster greater access for disadvantaged students to “high-status” universities.
Instead, Professor Blackman argues the case for greater equality of status between institutions. “There is not just an equality dividend to be gained from desegregating Britain’s universities but also a possibility of educational and productivity dividends,” he says.
He questions why, when the role of academic selection in secondary education has come under thorough scrutiny in the UK, “there is no such examination” of the social and educational impacts of academic selection in higher education.
His paper, The Comprehensive University, “aims to promote a debate about whether academic selection in higher education has gone too far. By too far is meant beyond what students need to succeed on a course, with little demand on teaching expertise in the most selective institutions, and into a realm of prestige and discrimination.”
Professor Blackman cites Higher Education Statistics Agency data showing stark differences in the social make-up of the student body at different kinds of universities. He says that “just 10 per cent of the intake at [the universities of] Oxford and Cambridge [are] from classes 4 to 7 [the most disadvantaged groups] compared to 58 per cent at [the University of] Bradford”.
Professor Blackman notes evidence that grammar schools lower attainment in nearby comprehensives by removing high-attaining pupils. “A reasonable inference from this evidence for higher education is that highly selective universities are damaging not only less selective universities but also the average achievement of all students,” he suggests.
He also cites evidence from the US showing a “positive relationship between student learning in higher education and exposure to peers from different backgrounds, including evidence of positive effects on problem-solving ability, satisfaction, motivation, general knowledge and self-confidence”.
One of Professor Blackman’s proposed solutions is for “a minimum matriculation requirement” for entry at universities “based on minimum threshold standards across the sector, but low enough to make a significant impact on the barrier to access created by high-entry requirements”.
The paper also proposes replacing with a levy the access expenditure that is currently required if an institution chooses to charge its students more than the basic fee.
The levy would be based on how imbalanced the social-class intake of an institution is, and the funding raised would be allocated by formula to institutions according to their need either to increase or decrease recruitment from certain social groups.
Professor Blackman says that a small number of “specially designated research universities” would be excluded from the levy, but would still be required to increase recruitment from non-selective schools.
He says that his proposed system is “not a complete shift to comprehensive higher education but one that introduces a large comprehensive element while preserving some selection and retaining a special status for a small number of research institutions”.