The fairer the better?

June 11, 2004

Moves to widen access may in fact create even greater social divisions, argues Yanina Sheeran

Controversies abound over fair access and widening participation, and some access initiatives appear to be contradictory and even potentially socially divisive.

In the meritocratic model of fair access, elite schools and universities strive to be "institutions where places are offered on the basis of raw ability" (a definition offered by Martin Stephen, High Master of Manchester Grammar).

This meritocratic version is also clearly articulated in the Higher Education Funding Council for England's research consultation document as "ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have a fair chance to gain admission to the more selective institutions ".

Tutors from top-ranking universities provide what they believe is the best education, and they encourage applications from disadvantaged groups and refine admissions processes to prepare high-ability students for university interviews and academia.

Whatever their limitations, these policies are sincere attempts to create equality of opportunity. But their aim is principally to increase the relative proportion of very able university students from underrepresented social groups. They resemble talent-spotting exercises on behalf of a comparatively small premier league.

By contrast, other universities pursue a more inclusive egalitarian policy, where emphasis is placed on adapting the curriculum, culture and organisation of the institution to achieve mass participation and meet the needs of non-traditional student groups.

This democratic model was presented by Howard Newby, Hefce's chief executive, in his vision of "learning networks", where further education colleges would join with a local university to increase the total number of higher education students - to achieve the 50 per cent participation target - as well as ensuring that they are more socially representative.

Progression to higher education would be through clearly identified paths; vocational and academic and part-time and full-time courses would be woven into a seamless web of user-friendly provision.

Equality of opportunity and parity of esteem were watchwords associated with the 1944 Education Act, but even today there remains a clearly defined hierarchy of provision as well as a private education sector. Are the shadows of this socially divisive system falling on our 21st-century university sector despite the attempt to create a more comprehensive-style system after 1992?

A distinctive Russell Group, differential fees, universities threatening to go private, access on the basis of entrance exams, grants for needy students, an Office for Fair Access: all this suggests that the meritocratic model is likely to remain entrenched.

Meanwhile, the democratic institutions work to increase numbers of non-traditional students. However, as they co-exist with elitist meritocratic institutions, they are mainly the insurance choice for ambitious Universities and Colleges Admissions Service applicants or the resort of mature students, part-timers and those with poor or no formal qualifications. They take risks with inclusive admissions policies and wrestle with the ensuing high dropout rates and charges of falling standards.

It is partly the very failure of fair access policies to cream off the most able students that helps to maintain the academic ambitions of these more democratic institutions. Consider for one moment what would be the social effects of a more efficient meritocratic system of fair access. With very able students from underrepresented groups clearly identified and well supported by grants or loans in premier universities, the educational divide would widen.

While the relentlessly meritocratic pursuit of excellence may be a seductive enterprise, a real meritocracy is, by definition, discriminatory - unequal but fair. In his 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy , Michael Young pointed out the dysfunctions of a truly meritocratic society: the privilege and arrogance of those at the top and the resignation or resentment of those labelled second rate, even when they knew that the system was fair. Indeed, because they knew it was fair.

Yanina Sheeran has a Hefce-funded excellence fellowship at Bradford University and tutors A level and adult access students at Keighley College. A national symposium for excellence fellows is being held on June 17 in Manchester, organised by York and Manchester universities.

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