An education on social mobility by degrees

26th May, 2012

‘Social mobility is about creating a truly level playing field and a fair race. That is why, for example, the Coalition government is encouraging universities to recruit on the basis of academic potential, on the basis of an ability to excel, not purely on previous attainment.’

Nick Clegg, May 22

Why does Mr Clegg want to lean on Universities?

Because he seems to believe that armed with an expensive enough education, a mediocrity can rise to the very top of British public life.

Nick Clegg should know all about that.

Harsh. It’s not his fault that he was educated at one of the poshest schools in the country.

Fair enough. What do the punters make of the idea?

Curiously enough, the private school sector doesn’t seem to make much of it. Tim Hands, a leading headmaster in the private sector, accused Mr Clegg of using “communist tactics” in trying to rig the market for university education after the event.

Daft to use university admissions to compensate for existing failures in the school system.

I think Nick Clegg and Tim Hands both have a point. It is easy, and lazy, to blame Oxford and Cambridge for society’s ills: David Cameron has done it, Gordon Brown loved to do it, and when an MP such as David Lammy says – as he did in 2010 – that getting a place at Oxford or Cambridge “remains a matter of being white, middle class and southern”, the dons are not terribly deft at defending themselves. It is far riskier to blame schools. Attacking university admissions is just good politics, even if the problems really lie in the school system.

I can see that – but are the attacks justified?

Less than you might think. Mr Lammy’s assault on Oxford was carefully phrased and many people, including Mr Cameron, inferred from his remarks that just a single black student was admitted to Oxford in 2009, which isn’t true. What is true is that not many black students are admitted to Oxford and Cambridge; but it is also true that not many black students get the A-level results that successful applicants usually boast. As far as I have been able to work out there is no serious evidence of discrimination but neither is there any evidence that Oxford has been bending over backwards to admit black applicants.

And this is the kind of thing that Mr Clegg would like to see.

Mr Clegg talked about class, not race. But he said, correctly, that state school applicants tend to over perform once selected for university, relative to public school kids. That implies that if universities lowered the bar for state school applicants and raised it for public school kids, we would expect more first-class degrees in the end.


Actually, there is every reason to believe that such a tweak might make the “market” for education work better. Put it this way, if you had to race against Usain Bolt in the 100 metres, neither you nor Usain Bolt are likely to regard it as a serious contest. He wins, you lose, neither of you need put any effort. But if Mr Bolt had to give you a 35 metre start, suddenly there is a real competition and we might expect both of you to run harder. Positive discrimination based on “contextual” variables – probably an applicant’s school, postcode and family circumstances – might well light a fire under everybody.

Don’t universities already do this?

Yes. Mr Clegg wants them to do more, it seems.

But isn’t this undermining the very idea of academic excellence?

It all depends on what you want from your universities. The implicit model of people who complain about Mr Clegg’s proposals seems to be that university is a kind of prize for the best performance so far – along the same theory that the Wimbledon Girls’ title is awarded to the player who beats her opponents, rather than the player regarded as most likely to win the Ladies’ title in future. But that is a little hard to justify. More reasonable alternatives are that university places should go to those most likely to excel in the future, or to those most likely to benefit from the education.

And meanwhile our political masters just need to sort out the school system?

Yes. I’ll give them six months to get that done.

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