Let students with two Es into top universities, says ex-minister

Baroness Blackstone argues that admitting applicants of mixed ability would be a ‘worthy goal’

June 21, 2016
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All comers: Baroness Blackstone: ‘a much more socially and academically mixed student population than exists at present’ would be a ‘worthy goal’

Students with only two E grades at A level should be admitted to the UK’s leading universities in order to build more diverse undergraduate cohorts, according to a former education minister.

Baroness Blackstone, former vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich and a Labour education minister between 1997 and 2001, said that creating “comprehensive” universities with “a much more socially and academically mixed student population than exists at present” would be a “worthy goal”.

Giving a Gresham College lecture at the City of London’s Guildhall, she suggested that the way to achieve this would be stratification of intakes by grading: having “top tier entry requirements of an A* and two As or above, followed by the next group requiring three As, followed by two As and a B, all the way down to a group with minimum entry of two Es”.

Baroness Blackstone, who stepped down as Greenwich’s vice-chancellor in 2011 and was also master of Birkbeck, University of London, said that highly selective institutions should recognise that most young people who took A levels are “capable of studying for an undergraduate degree”.

Teaching more diverse cohorts would, she said, “be more interesting and more challenging”, and would mean that students would be “more likely to learn to respect and treat as equals people with profoundly different backgrounds”.

“Should we not do far more to prevent elites from spending the whole of their education and indeed much of their lives ignorant and sometimes prejudiced about their fellow citizens?”, Baroness Blackstone asked. “If they are to occupy positions of power and authority in political, economic, professional and cultural roles in a democracy this should surely be avoided.”

Baroness Blackstone said that the experience of Ivy League institutions in the US, which “do not rely solely on applicants’ school results”, shows how having an international reputation was “perfectly compatible with having a more diverse student population”.

The intervention came after Ucas data showed how students from the poorest backgrounds are up to 16 times less likely to win a place at a Russell Group university than their peers from the most advantaged neighbourhoods, and how students from ethnic minority groups are less likely to get into selective institutions.

In a wide-ranging address, Baroness Blackstone criticised universities’ outreach efforts, complaining that they are too often “untargeted” and involved work with students aged as young as 10 “which really should be done by the schools themselves”.

It would be better to focus on students who are closer to making decisions about university study, according to Baroness Blackstone, who said that the shift to this sort of activity from bursaries and fee discounts has been “far too slow”.

She also described the teaching excellence framework as being “intrusive and over-complex”, arguing that it would be better to link fee levels to whether an institution meets its benchmarks on social mobility, not judgements of educational quality.


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Reader's comments (4)

To be honest, the dynamic range of students is already very large even with "selective" entry. Unstreamed comprehensive schools do not work and neither would this. It is an idealistic proposal that is not what is needed for the current climate. The solution is to offer many apprenticeships that can lead to degrees as people develop their skills. The university system should offer a place for those (like myself as a young person) who are highly academic and ready to push themselves to the next level. Today's mass system means that many graduates are saddled with debts but are not particularly useful in graduate jobs. Ruining the whole system will not benefit anyone.
Absolute madness; showing a complete detachment from those who would supposedly benefit from this ridiculous ideology. From my experience, opening the doors to those ill-equipped to benefit from an undergraduate programme leads to; an ultimate humiliation of that student when they can't cope and unbelievable pressures on examiners to pass that student regardless of their attainment. Wounding young people for the shear hell of it is just unacceptable. Experience confirms that everybody loses with such stupid thinking.
This idea misses a critical point - any student admitted to an undergraduate course must a) be sufficiently interested in it b) possess motivation / want to be at university in the first place - many are being channeled into HE due to a lack of alternatives / employment opportunities, don't really want to be there and have a miserable time when they realise that regardless of the move to applied work across u/g programmes that reading (for a degree) is an integral part of the deal. Having worked in 2 lower league universities for 10 years I've seen one or two students with relatively low A level grades do very well - but they are a minority and had a strong work ethic / determination to succeed. Many more have been pulled through the course with low levels of attendance and reassessments on their record, but unfortunately still emerge with a sense of entitlement in terms of expectations of the job market; they come no where near to being able to compete with the 'better' qualified graduate. Blackstone is an idealist, not a realist and obviously lacks scruples when it comes to the public and personal (esp. financial) costs implied by her suggestion - let's hope it remains just that, a suggestion.
I think we do let students with two Es into higher education already. Falling down in A-level examinations, where one's efforts are judged on one day, is not necessarily representative of one's ability (can be all sorts of reasons for not doing so well), so low grades are not the end for students who really desire knowledge. Access courses, and foundation courses in FE and HE institutions, or just retaking A-levels help students get into HE. My experience is that these students, when they do get into university, feel intensely that they must work really hard, and therefore do as well, if not better, than many of the confident top grade A-level students.