The wrong conclusion

August 22, 1997

I AGREE with most of what Phil Willis MP said in his THES article last week. Any money raised by tuition fees must be retained for the benefit of higher education. Since employers are major beneficiaries of higher education, they should contribute towards it.

I also agree that more students from working-class backgrounds should enter higher education. But when he says that "the cultural background of students from poorer homes does not promote the idea of three years' studying full-time away from home" and deduces along with Dearing that "increased participation will only be secured via part-time and distance learning tied into work and where students see a reason to participate", then his conclusion is mistaken.

It is certainly true that working class students are often put off by the "old school tie" image of itself that higher education so often presents. The Association of University Teachers and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals have work to do here. But while students from wealthy backgrounds with home computers, lavish living and working space, privacy, transport and academically supportive families and friends could study successfully part-time and from home, working-class students with none of these facilities could not possibly compete on equal terms. How can they combine learning with work if they are unemployed? Their culture is unconducive to three years' study away because it is unconducive to study. These are exactly the students who need the facilities of a university environment.

We must avoid slipping into the assumption that working-class students are inherently incapable of a traditional university education. By all means use whatever methods are available to compensate for their often impoverished schooling. However, if these methods bring them up to university entrance levels of attainment, then they must be encouraged to enter properly resourced universities.

P. K. Burgess President Association of University Teachers

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