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Academic selection is routine among universities but still controversial in secondary education. The measure of a good university for many prospective students and their parents is how demanding its entry grades are; being rejected is a sign of not being bright enough rather than an unjust denial of opportunity. Tim Blackman FRSA argues it is time for a change.

Attending a more selective university confers many advantages – not least because the elite professions tend to recruit exclusively from these institutions – but good teaching may not be one of them. Their academics are socialised and incentivised to put their research first, and although they may suggest that the best teaching is research-led, there is in fact little evidence that high-quality research leads to high-quality teaching, and some evidence that the two are in conflict because time on one takes time from the other.

Discussions about the standard of teaching are common in schools but rarely heard among university teachers outside specific teaching forums: a reflection of school teachers being trained while in many universities only a minority of academics are qualified to teach. The weight of evidence from schools that mixed ability teaching creates opportunities to raise everyone’s game, and that diversity encourages a broader range of ideas and perspectives, has little influence in higher education where the chat is more about the quality of students than the quality of teaching.

I had good teachers in my youngest years when it mattered;  at primary school and then at a great comprehensive school where as a middle class boy I made my first friends from council housing estates. Then I moved to a selective grammar school where the teaching was sometimes awful but the expectation of progression to university was enough to motivate us to work for the grades needed for university and preferably avoid the polytechnics. The polys were for the children at my old comprehensive school. We heard nothing about the bold vision for higher education set out in Eric Robinson’s fine 1968 book The Future Polytechnics orthe advantages of mixing social classes and academic with vocational education, both needed for healthy democracies and productive economies.

Polytechnics pioneered practice-based teaching, work-based learning and professional doctorates but the new vision was soon subordinated to the conventional academic research model because of its dominance in the universities attended by the UK’s business and political elites.

Their favouritism towards the type of university they themselves attended has seemed vindicated, as the UK’s university research has been shown to be among the best in the world. But the quality of this research is assessed through peer review by academics mostly based in these highly selective institutions. This is not to deny that much of this work is impressive intellectually but to ask whether it is useful; does it make the world a better place?

A lot of research is not used outside academia and many publications are not accessible outside a publisher’s pay wall. Meanwhile, UK economic productivity lags behind many other countries and professional practice in many fields is still poorly informed by evidence; unsurprising given we fund so much research solely in universities rather than with companies and organisations that could apply the results.

The issue runs deeper than this. The academic research paradigm and its hierarchies have meant that universities have paid little regard to the rise of alternatives such as ‘design thinking’, with its practical, iterative and creative solution-focused approaches, potentially relevant to all subjects, and much more common in innovative companies and organisations than conventional research models. The polytechnic idea was about design thinking: about students making things – whether policies, services, products or artworks – and not just about finding things out.

Design thinking includes learning design. Some people find learning harder than others but good learning design can realise everyone’s potential to learn and challenge the pessimism that past academic achievement determines future performance. When we expect so many other services to get better and better at what they do as they innovate and learn, why don’t we expect universities to get better and better at teaching? They might be but no-one really knows.

Universities have, however, been producing more graduates and that has been important in moderating inequalities by widening access to higher incomes, with relatively little dilution of the graduate pay premium. Yet as Mike Savage’s recent book Social Class in the 21st Century shows, our stratified university sector still sorts graduates into social classes according to the type of institution attended, compounding the effects of parental social class and type of school.

Many Russell Group universities perform the function of employment agencies for elite professions, matching privileged children to privileged occupations, while the rest of the sector is largely denied these students and relegated to ‘access’ missions and occasional moral panics about whether there are too many young people studying at university.

What can be done? Academic selection, already in many institutions well beyond what is needed to complete their courses, needs to be reformed. Even the government’s specialist academy schools in England are only allowed to select a small proportion of their intake. Changing this approach may mean providing more access and foundation courses so students are not set up to fail if unprepared for higher education. That is not a bad thing, but the quality of teaching will also need to change.

The current focus on getting a few more ‘bright kids’ from disadvantaged backgrounds into the most selective universities needs to be balanced by enabling other universities to mix ability by offering scholarships to build up their intakes coming with high prior attainment, enriching opportunities for social and cultural exchange, and for teaching methods such as peer-to-peer learning. Scholarships could be funded by a tariff on very selective universities that reduces as they increase their own diversity.

Credit transfer needs to be mandatory so that credit earned in one institution appropriately quality-assessed can be transferred to another for the same or similar course. Research needs to be approached as an open enterprise with more national planning and collaboration with companies and public services. Design thinking needs to be taken seriously as an alternative to conventional research models.

Universities are not likely to volunteer for such changes and the impetus may need to come from policy makers as it did with comprehensive schooling. But there is a chance that two universities, perhaps sharing the same city, one perhaps a Russell Group institution and one a post-92 ex-polytechnic, might break the mould and merge, showing us the way for 21st century higher education as a democratising force that people of all ages can choose to do rather than be selected for.

Tim Blackman is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy and Vice-Chancellor at Middlesex University. He has previously worked at The Open University, Durham University and in local government, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Academy of Social Sciences.

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