The folly of a selective process

November 14, 1997

As every English studies undergraduate should know, part of the folly exposed by Marlowe's Dr Faustus is that of intellectual self-deception.

He constructs a conclusion which attracts him and selects his material to justify his choice. He allows his academic standards to slip with tragic consequences. It appears an appropriate story since we have been preoccupied with the question of standards, whether in education or in journalism.

The conduct of the press has come under scrutiny. Is it good enough to use the freedom of images, speech, report and comment to hound an individual? Is it permissible to print dramatic but fallacious stories on a Tuesday with an obscure apology tucked away in the same paper on a Wednesday? In relation to education, some correspondents have engaged themselves this year, as last, in articles on alleged inequality of standards found in UK universities. Some commentators and think tank advisers declare that output results must be lower at one university than another because the former accepts lower entry standards and recruits from the lower socio-economic classes. This might be an attractive conclusion for defenders of an elite system of higher education, but there does appear to be something disturbing about the research. If an argument is fostered by using a selective process to prove the conclusion, then scholastic alarm bells should rightly sound. If elitism is held up as something to be admired, then we must wonder whether commentators are constructing controversy; whether, that is, they are relaxing their own standards to question the standards of another profession.

Ironically, Dr Faustus may not be so far away.

The government wishes to create an egalitarian education system. Students should be assured that whatever university they attend their qualifications will be gained through attaining a nationally agreed threshold of standards. The external examiner system ensured that this was so, although there has been a social and cultural distinction ever present between Oxbridge and the rest.

How can a provincial 1992 university compete with the resources available to Oxbridge? It cannot. It should rather strive for its own sense of mission within its resources. If educational correspondents and advisers quite rightly become involved in the debates, they might constructively be engaged by pressing for a greater proportion of the gross domestic product to be spent on education. They might consider how new funding models might reduce the financial inequalities found across the system. The challenge is to produce methodologies which will promote further efficiency without an attendant loss of quality.

Yet just as the argument is valid that, without public demand, the press could have no reason to become intrusive on the privacy of individuals, so commentators would not be encouraged to make their sometimes scathing attacks if they were not fed by attitudes inherent within the universities.

Accusations started, not with the press but with the institutions.

There is the possibility, too, of the Committee of vice chancellors and principals declining into a series of self-interested pressure groups. The threat to nationally agreed standards would then be self-fulfilling.

The graduate standards programme has pointed the way to agreement on thresholds. The Dearing committee's recommendations for subject panels and a new external examiners system will provide, through the Quality Assurance Agency, guarantees for the public. Student choice will suit temperament and pocket, but the university standard at each level of qualification offered will be constant, consistent and evident. There will be little temptation for the construction and justification of Faustian conclusions.

Michael Scott is a pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University but writes in a personal capacity.

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