Lessons to be learned

June 2, 2000

Which was the 'absolute scandal' last week - Oxford's rejection of Laura Spence or Gordon Brown telling universities whom to select? Barry Sheerman and Colin Lucas (No Compromise on Standards) discuss the issues

Participating in the debate that has followed the rejection of one northern comprehensive school student to read medicine at an ancient Oxford college has been both disturbing and enlightening. From the heat and fury has come one principle, on which everyone seems agreed - that our most gifted students should be able to attend Britain's finest universities.

After the public airing of the alleged injustice of Laura Spence's rejection by Magdalen College, followed by the chancellor of the exchequer's reference to it last week, everyone pitched into the discussion. In the past few days we have grown tired of people practically brawling in public over the presence or absence of privilege in our top universities. Yet the fact that we have involved the public and their parliamentary representatives in the most dramatic debate on university selection procedures in recent years must surely be turned to some benefit.

We must attempt to gather the facts to better inform the decisions that we have to make. In my tenure as chairman of the select committee on education, I hope that I have begun to be perceived as a champion of a better-funded higher education system. I have also tried to educate myself on the issues facing universities. Indeed, part of my homework was to visit Oxford. First, I went to Magdalen College, where I enjoyed discussions with the master, Anthony Smith. The following week I invited Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust to discuss access by poorer students to leading UK universities and the slow pace of reform.

It became clear to me, long before last week's remarkable events, that there was an urgent need for an independent look at university admissions, as part of our select committee's on-going inquiry into higher education.

I will have to persuade my committee colleagues that this is a wise course of action. Select committees can tackle issues of public and parliamentary concern independently and effectively. The process of calling for evidence, the public examination of ministers and other witnesses, combined with rigorous investigation, can establish facts, focus debate and give clear recommendations for necessary reforms. Government and universities may well find the process useful, even cathartic.

What then has been highlighted over the past few days?

Undoubtedly the access debate includes many more universities than Oxford and Cambridge. All universities are affected by and care about the people they recruit. Every college should be engaged in these discussions.

We have been reminded that any investigation should reach down deep into our schooling system. We must evaluate how the various school cultures determine not only the aspirations but the final choices of students. What are the most effective ways to ensure that a pupil has a full knowledge of the relevant choice on offer? How do we overcome the twin evils of poor information and prejudice against certain universities?

Do we really understand what lies behind student choice? How much of a barrier is the contemplation of an Oxbridge admissions interview? My own A-level-taking daughter has a number of bright contemporaries who would not consider adding a stressful interview to the final frenetic sixth-form year. What can comprehensive schools learn from the private sector about coaching for interviews and how can universities help?

Just how effective are universities in seeking out talent wherever it might exist? Are there lessons to be learned from the United States and its teams of talent-spotters? Can real change be achieved without significant new resources and very ambitious targets?

An Oxford academic recently lamented the fact that students rarely take up public service careers and never entertain one in teaching. Graduates now head for the big salaries in the City, or corporate law. Perhaps this should lead us to consider not only the students our universities strive to attract, but the quality of their graduates and those graduates' choice of careers.

Barry Sheerman is Labour MP for Huddersfield and chair of the House of Commons education select committee.

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