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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Comprehensive universities

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By Paul Temple

Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University, will, I guess, have been pleased by the interest created by his polemic, The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, (HEPI Occasional Paper 17, July 2017). One response on Wonkhe (20 July) by fellow VC Edward Peck supports Blackman’s wish to see “comprehensive universities” – in the sense of comprehensive schools, where admission is not determined by exam results – but worries that the result would be a government-directed “complicated and centralised” higher education system. This conclusion soon found (I think, unintended) support from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian on 18 August, in a piece I first mentally filed with the “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?” literature. But Sodha goes further, with proposals that might have caused a Soviet bloc educational apparatchik to hesitate, including standardising degree classifications across the system and “introducing a [minimum] quota for working-class students at each university”. I began to wonder if the piece was actually a wind-up aimed at Daily Mail columnists. 

Our late and much-missed colleague David Watson would have applauded Blackman’s sharp jabs at the Russell Group, particularly at how it has been given a largely free pass by the media and (unforgivably) government bodies to self-define the “best” universities. Like Blackman, he was infuriated by the lazy assumption that something had gone wrong when high-achieving school leavers didn’t end up in Russell Group universities. (Blackman, I’m afraid, is able to quote an IoE colleague arguing to just this effect.) Yet Blackman’s intended analogy between non-selective schools and the non-selective universities he’d like to see doesn’t work in a number of respects. For one thing, as he admits, research gets in the way: so he suggests that, using “an indicator such as research income exceeding teaching income, there would be around eight universities designated as research universities”. The rest would be “comprehensive teaching universities”. But this would create a reputational chasm in the sector so huge as to make the Russell/non-Russell distinction seem like a mere cosmetic blemish. It would also carry the obvious danger of encouraging a “why bother?” attitude – for different reasons – across the whole sector.

Blackman says that the principle behind comprehensive schools is that “it is best to educate young people of different abilities together”. (And, I’d argue, not just different abilities but those from different religious and ethnic backgrounds too. I’m not holding my breath.) But the killer argument for comprehensive schools is that the comprehensive principle isn’t just warm-and-fuzzy liberalism: it is the only conceivably fair and (from a human capital perspective) efficient option, as it is simply not possible to classify children at 11+ on grounds of intellectual ability. Attempts to do so just waste human talent.

Blackman argues that the social class differences – mirrored in A-level grades – between universities’ intakes mean that similar arguments to these apply at 18+, and that because schools have failed “to break the link between social class and attainment”, universities should try to do so. This of course implies that the comprehensive principle hasn’t worked well in schools, but that universities should give it another go anyway. But it may not have worked well in schools because, as well as being systematically under-resourced, they have not, by and large, been able to achieve the “balanced intakes” that progressive education authorities tried to bring about in the 1970s and ‘80s. Such evidence-based policies would be dismissed as “social engineering” today. Blackman’s ideas on how to achieve this in higher education seem to require top-down controls – “quotas and levies” – to affect the composition of student intakes that never applied even when more corporatist or dirigiste planning methods were in vogue nationally. Even those who do not assume that there is a market solution to every problem would probably have difficulties with this kind of intervention. The cure could turn out to be worse than the illness.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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