The admissions review should start a period of historical reflection and self-awareness, hopes Gary McCulloch
When I was a student, some years ago, there was a well-known story about a previous admissions tutor whose basic method at entrance interviews was to throw a rugby ball at candidates as they entered the room. If you dropped it you were in trouble, if you caught it you were accepted, and if you threw it back you got a scholarship.
In our changing environment it is no surprise to find that this kind of custom is now frowned on, nor indeed that the heat is on to find fairer and more transparent admissions systems as proposed in the final Schwartz review.
This is not simply because higher education is so important to society and the individuals concerned; this has been the case for a very long time. Nor is it simply due to the pressures of increasing diversity and mass participation, which the review also gives as an explanation.
There are deeper social and political factors at play here. One issue is that secret gardens are no longer allowed in any area of education - whether in the school curriculum, in doctoral vivas or in entrance procedures, accountability is a key theme of the so-called Great Debate that has developed in education since the 1970s.
More generally the need not simply to be fair but to be seen to be fair is also a staple diet of our audit society. This means in turn that there will be a basic tension between professional autonomy and public accountability.
The Schwartz review does its best to hold the line between these ideals in a manner reminiscent of the Dearing review of the National Curriculum in the 1990s. Its evocation of academic freedom is welcome coming so soon after the 2003 White Paper, The Future Of Higher Education , where it was conspicuous by its absence.
Still, just how do you try to reconcile the ideals of the Robbins report of 1963 with the marketised system of the early 21st century? This is just one of a number of longstanding historical themes that arise from the Schwartz review and that continue to cause trouble. It extols individual merit - but is not sure how to identify and assess it. It favours equality of opportunity and a level playing field, the latest in a long line of reports to do so.
The review also proposes the further development of a technology of testing, but in doing so raises the prospect of this creating new barriers in the path of transparency and fairness - as it has done before, and not so long ago. Historically, testing mechanisms that were invented to provide a more accurate measure of individual progress and a fairer means of selection too often ended up as a new way of excluding many deserving students. As historians such as the late Brian Simon have shown, these measures of differentiation and classification merely consolidated a pyramid, and made it more difficult rather than less to gain access to the most prestigious levels of education. Devices such as the 11-plus examination and streaming were used to stratify and to justify an existing hierarchy. We had better not forget these ingrained tendencies in our educational tradition, or we are likely to repeat them.
For all the difficulty of these issues, it is right to confront and address them. One of our leading educators, Fred Clarke, argued more than 60 years ago that one of the principal difficulties of educational reform in this country was the habit of thinking in terms of concrete precedent rather than in terms of abstract principle. Clarke pointed out that the historical determinants of education were taken too much for granted and needed to be more fully understood. For example, he suggested, access to universities was based fundamentally on the social development of three distinct educational routes, which he likened to the "free front door", the "side entrance" and the "front door on conditions". It was this big picture that he saw as fundamental to a proper understanding of the problem.
In responding to the principles and issues raised by the Schwartz review, maybe we should similarly try to remain alert to the big picture, and resist a narrowing of the debate to the merely technical and practical. For instance, the details of testing mechanisms need to be related to these broader social and historical problems. Let us hope that the higher principles set out by the Schwartz review mark the beginning of discussion in a spirit of critical self-awareness informed by our historical experience - of intelligence tests, as well as rugby balls.
Gary McCulloch is Brian Simon professor of the history of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. His inaugural address will be presented on October 21.