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.