In defence of Cambridge excellence

February 2, 1996

During the week beginning February 12, Cambridge University is holding a postal ballot on a proposal to introduce an education studies tripos. The result should be known on February 19. Almost all students taking the proposed course would study at Homerton, a noted teacher training establishment which is formally an approved society of the university rather than a college.

The proposed tripos would lead to a BA degree and a big issue in the debate is whether it is appropriate for a student qualifying from a teacher training college, albeit an outstanding one, to be awarded a Cambridge BA. The education studies tripos has a good deal in common with the existing BEd (teacher training) course but includes no teaching practice. It is a theory-only tripos, intended for those who have a profound interest in education but no interest in teaching. Some are saying that this is rather like geology without rocks or chemistry without test tubes.

In accordance with Cambridge practice, fly-sheets have been written by both sides and the signatures of influential senior members of the university are eagerly being solicited. Those against the proposals include many fellows of the Royal Society, notably the heads of physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering and computer science.

Opposition is by no means confined to scientists. The distinguished historian Correlli Barnett sees the debate as excellence versus liberalism. Both are high ideals and often not in conflict, but when a choice has to be made Cambridge should always opt for excellence.

One non-placet fly-sheet summarises the opposition viewpoint by noting that the proposed tripos would be unique in several ways as: * the first tripos leading to a BA which would essentially be confined to a single college * The first tripos leading to a BA from which no escape would be possible in the first two years * The first tripos leading to a BA in which most participants would not have at least three grade As at A level.

The number of offers that colleges may make to home applicants is now restricted by quota. Homerton has a separate quota for education studies which is sufficient to provide for all those expected to read the subject. Homerton is indeed treated as a separate institution by the Higher Education Funding Council and its students' composition fees do not go to the university.

Homerton has given an undertaking that no student would be allowed to change out of education studies in the first two years and this undertaking has been underlined by the threat of more stringent controls should such changes of subject take place. This would be an extraordinary blow to the much-vaunted flexibility of the tripos arrangements in Cambridge. No existing subject has such a Berlin Wall and during the early weeks of each Michaelmas term many students change subjects. The difficulty for a student is normally gaining entry into a subject not exit from one.

Cambridge Admissions Forum figures show that, excluding Homerton, 89 per cent of those accepted by the A-level route arrive with three or more grade As. The norm is clearly AAA with the occasional AAB. Analogous figures are not published for Homerton but their prospectus for the existing BEd states that offers "are likely to be BBC-BCD".

The education studies tripos would co-exist with the BEd and students on both courses would live and work together. The teacher training course takes a year longer and includes much of the same material but additionally involves much time in schools; it leads to qualified teacher status as well as to the BEd degree. Students on the teacher training course could justifiably claim that their BEd is more demanding than the BA awarded for education studies and ask why they too cannot have the BA degree.

Excellence requires continuous vigilance. Cambridge is in top place in The Times league table but only by a whisker. A-level entry grades are taken into account and the introduction of the education studies tripos could topple Cambridge from the pinnacle. This must not be allowed to happen.

Either Homerton should be permitted to become a normal college or it should stay as it is. As a normal college offering a full range of subjects it would have access to the high-quality applicants rejected by other colleges because of quota restrictions. If it stays as a single-subject college, Homerton should not admit candidates for the coveted BA (Cantab).

If there is to be excellence in the study of education the proper place is at masters level. Excellence is unlikely if the typical student is a recent school-leaver with no grade As and no interest in teaching. Perhaps the existing and highly regarded MEd could be developed. Proposals which enable BBC-BCD applicants to be accepted in one college for a course leading to a BA when so many much better applicants are rejected in other colleges have to be questioned. It is anybody's guess as to which way the vote will go. Cambridge will be an interesting place to watch on February 19.

Frank H. King is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

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