It takes all sorts

Universities must embrace diversity to better serve the needs of the nation and local communities, argues Eric Thomas

March 1, 2012

The past three weeks have seen astonishing attacks on universities in parts of the media. Accusations of dumbing down, Mickey Mouse degrees, "polyology" and social engineering abounded. These articles have been almost exclusively devoid of evidence and have betrayed some of the social prejudices of their writers.

Why is this? On any objective analysis our universities are a great national asset and in value-for-money terms constitute probably the premier system in the world. It is in society's interest that those who can flourish at university be given the opportunity so to do. A more educated society is more intellectually and economically productive, more tolerant, more stable and more altruistic.

Almost all economists agree that our future is as a knowledge economy based around innovation and highly skilled people. Universities are the engines of those ideas and people. They are also powerful enablers of social mobility and can radically change an individual's life trajectory.

One explanation for the media attacks is that there is still a view in some parts of society that individuals have a defined and pre-determined place in the hierarchy. It appears some think that certain individuals should not be doing degrees at all and certainly not in particular subjects. It is staggering that such views remain in the second decade of the 21st century. It is essential for our future that we mobilise all the talent we can to prosper in an increasingly competitive and globalised world.

Social engineering is a term that is both pejorative and abused. Universities want the best students and also those with the most potential to succeed. They do this because it is fair and also because the evidence is that the more diverse the cohort of students with whom you are educated, the better you are educated. Students educate and influence each other in multiple academic, social and cultural ways. Using the overall academic performance of an applicant's school as one variable in a very nuanced decision over admission will help to ensure that diversity.

Such practices do not appear to disadvantage anyone, contrary to media stories that appear to imply that many outstanding students receive no offers. When I was a director of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, I asked how many applicants, either predicted or possessing three grade As at A level, did not get an offer from any university. The answer was less than 2 per cent, and those negative outcomes happened mainly in those subjects where aspects of personality affect the decision, such as medicine, where aspects of performance influence outcomes, such as drama, or were simply because of poorly constructed applications.

There is good evidence that pupils from less selective educational backgrounds perform at least as well at university and some perform better. Everyone should be pleased about this. For the selective schools in any sector, this shows that they have educated their pupils to their full potential and that trajectory continues at university. For the other students it shows that when they are put in an enriched educational environment with an excellent peer group, they flourish.

The history of universities is one of growth and increasing diversity. Each time this happens there are reactionary complaints. The introduction of medicine as a university course in the 19th and early 20th centuries was considered dumbing down. One hundred years ago people thought of English literature in this way. In the 1970s, it was accountancy. Now it seems that media studies and art and design are being targeted. There is an acute irony here, given that these are precisely the areas where the UK leads the world and where industries need graduate-level skills. It is also noticeable that many of the examples quoted in these articles are foundation degrees rather than full undergraduate study.

The reality is that all our universities serve all of society's diverse needs. Let's look at my native North East, which has exactly the diversity of institutions the region requires. They range from research-intensive universities attracting students from all over the country to those that are reacting more to the needs of the local population and local employers. Each is fulfilling a valuable purpose; each is providing opportunities and new life chances for its students. Those students and those opportunities are very different but they are each as valuable. The journey from my alma mater, Newcastle University, to the vice-chancellorship of the University of Bristol is no less life-transforming than the journey of a student from a house in Redcar where nobody has ever been to university who becomes a family solicitor in Yarm through a law degree at Teesside University. That is what social mobility is all about and we must embrace, respect and celebrate that.

In the face of such attacks, it is important for staff, students, representative groups and all partners of universities to forcefully restate together the value of higher education, in all its diversity, to people and to society.

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