True indicator is a job at the end

December 10, 1999

The idea behind university performance indicators about widening participation and drop-out rates (THES, December 3) is welcome. It is the very essence of a modern university that its students and staff should share and extend knowledge on the basis of their individual intellectual abilities, regardless of personal or social background.

But the key criteria for successful university education relate to the benefits that result for graduates, in terms of career success and of improved quality of life arising from broadened intellectual horizons. In systems terms, statistics about fair selection focus on the input stage. Drop-out rates target education processes that do not reach minimum levels of adequacy. To be meaningful, the indicators about inputs and processes need to be interpreted alongside information about successful output -Jin other words, graduates with good jobs.

Students from poorer areas and mature students look to universities above all to provide a step onto the employment ladder. But successful completion of a degree may not benefit them as much as a middle-class student entering university straight from school. Graduates with good social backgrounds are advantaged in the jungle of the employment market, while mature students suffer notoriously from age discrimination when they apply for jobs.

Low levels of participation by particular groups in higher education may reflect not ignorance of opportunities, poor teaching or selection bias but realistic appraisal of likely benefits. If this is so, pressure on universities for positive discrimination will simply cause, at considerable financial cost, frustration and resentment for graduates from poorer backgrounds.

The government needs to tackle the root problem of employers who consistently fail to provide fair and adequate job opportunities for people from poorer areas and for older workers. To blame universities instead would be to take an easy way out.

Frederic Stansfield


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