The week in higher education

July 10, 2008

- First Bill Rammell and then Richard and Judy waded into the row over the decision by Imperial College London to withdraw a place to study medicine from a man with a burglary conviction. The Minister for Universities said that institutions should be "open" to young people with spent convictions who had got their lives back on track, it was reported on 4 July. Majid Ahmed, who is from a poor part of Bradford, lost the offer of a place when he admitted having a spent conviction for burglary dating back to 2005. Mr Rammell said the 18-year-old had "put his life back together and done everything society would ask of him". Husband-and-wife columnists Richard and Judy, writing in the Daily Express the next day, said they could not remember the last time they had felt so angry about a story. "Imperial College had a fit of the vapours, sent out for the smelling salts and cancelled Majid's placement," they said. "I could give you the official, pompous reasons, but they readily convert to 'We don't want your sort here'."

- Suggestions of such class bias in university admissions are, according to Times columnist Giles Coren, "Boring. Borrrrrrring. Boring, boring, boring. I am so fed up with being made to feel guilty for getting into Oxford only because I went to a school that gave me a posh voice, fluent conversational Latin, three top hats and a brief friendship with the eldest son of the Earl of Sandwich," he wrote on 5 July. "So I have come up with a solution - ban public school boys from going to university altogether. The truth is if you go to a half-decent private school you arrive at university knowing as much as you're going to need to pass a modern university exam anyway." The former pupil of Westminster School added: "University can make a bright young mind complacent."

- Boring or not, the issue of class continues to get plenty of ink. In her column in The Guardian, journalist and broadcaster Polly Toynbee argued that as Britain has become more qualified, so social mobility has declined. She said that education is not and never was the prime motor for upward mobility. "The great growth in universities has become an agent to fix children of the big new middle class into their parents' status more securely than before, while more working-class children get degrees. In the 1960s, bright school-leavers at 16 could work their way up, but now lack of qualification keeps them in their place as graduates from better backgrounds seize that job instead," she wrote on 5 July.

- The value of a degree is also being debated by employers, who are reportedly dropping the requirement for graduate recruits to have a 2:1 because of a perception that grading is inconsistent across universities. According to research by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), companies increasingly believe that a 2:2 at one university may be the equivalent of a first at another. Carl Gilleard, the association's chief executive, said employers "have not abandoned degree classifications overnight", but they now looked for other attributes to prove high achievement", The Observer reported on 6 July. In another AGR survey, published on 8 July, more than half the firms questioned expressed concern about basic skills such as reading and writing among graduates.

- The Government's plans to introduce 14-19 diplomas have been facing strong criticism, so ministers will welcome news that university admissions officers think that they are a good idea. According to the results of a poll released on 8 July, a majority of admissions staff believe that increased exam choice will be an improvement on the current system, although many respondents were also adamant that A levels must not be phased out.

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