Super-selection creates a monoculture that does not benefit society

Government policies that push universities to recruit only top achievers are bad for diversity and equality, warns Tessa Blackstone

December 15, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

There are many disturbing aspects of current policies towards higher education, but one of the most disturbing has attracted relatively little comment compared with funding reforms, student financial support or access to visas for overseas students. It is the growing obsession with the stratification of universities by the A-level grades their students attain.

The new conventional wisdom is that students with high A-level grades should all be corralled into so-called "top" universities, ie, those that are research intensive. These universities are deemed to be successful by being not just selective, but super-selective in their student recruitment. Now, every newspaper league table of universities heavily weights the input measure of students' entry qualifications, encouraging universities to be ever more focused on candidates with three As or better. This fixation has a number of unfortunate consequences.

Of these, by far the most important is that the intake of universities becomes less and less diverse. Very high A-level scores can be and indeed are achieved by some young people from all social and ethnic groups. However, there is a large preponderance of private school-educated, upper-middle-class students with these scores, which reflects the advantages of their schooling and their family backgrounds. One indicator is the tiny number of British black and Asian students at Oxbridge and the concentration of such students in post-1992 inner-city universities. Another sign is the under-representation of mature students in some universities and their concentration in others, partly because they have taken fewer A levels than 18-year-old candidates, or in many cases none at all.

The second unfortunate consequence is the effect on teaching in universities. In the super-selective universities, it is encouraging a culture in which it is believed that "only brilliant students can survive here" and "we can't teach people with less than three As". This is utterly defeatist, but also patently absurd.

The greatest challenge that university teachers face is to inspire and motivate their students to learn - whatever their prior achievement - to develop potential that has not yet been reached, and to improve the life chances of those whose start in life was not a privileged one. Those who turn up with the best A levels may well be easy to teach, but the great satisfaction of adding value will be harder to attain. Moreover, they will not necessarily be the best students in terms of curiosity or questioning of established views or even of creativity and innovatory thinking. The correlation between A-level grades and later achievement is in any case less close than people assume.

The third unfortunate consequence is that many large and prestigious employers of graduates assume that all the best students go to a small number of "elite" universities and that their recruitment of new graduates should be focused on, or indeed confined to, those institutions. All efforts to increase social mobility will come to little if such views prevail. Many perfectly able young people, as well as mature graduates who did well at their local university, will be denied opportunities because they went to a less high-status institution, which has students entering with a wide range of ability.

The government's ill-thought-through policy on the AAB threshold will serve only to reinforce super-selection and the stratification of universities by entry qualifications. Any hope that selective universities might widen their entry and take many more students through "contextual" approaches will be dashed. Account is less likely to be taken of students' backgrounds and in particular of their school's lack of success in gaining university places for their pupils. Instead, the pressure will be to take even more AAB and above students to ensure that overall numbers are maintained or increased, because their non-AAB+ quotas will be cut. Ministers talk about the need for fair access and then introduce policies that undermine the very objective they espouse.

It is not, however, a diminution in fair access that concerns me most. What really worries me is a socially segregated system of higher education that is being reinforced and made more extreme.

Let us fight for universities that embrace students from many different backgrounds and with wide-ranging levels of ability when they enter as undergraduates. Those that do so will face the exciting challenge of a diverse student body which reflects contemporary Britain and which gives greater hope for a more open society where social mobility can flourish.

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