By Paul Temple
Burton Clark, considering ‘The Problem of Complexity in Modern Higher Education’ (reprinted in On Higher Education, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), says: “With each passing decade a modern or modernizing system of higher education is expected … to do more for other portions of society … from strengthening the economy … to developing individual talents and personalities and aiding the pursuit of happiness … This steady accretion of realistic expectations cannot be stopped, let alone reversed” (p386). But – and although one naturally hesitates to disagree with Clark on anything – perhaps not all “the system’s bundle of tasks” have to be accepted without asking some hard questions.
One of these tasks is considered by Lee Elliot Major and Pallavi Amitava Banerjee in HEPI’s Policy Note 20 (December 2019), which presents their thoughts on access to what they variously call “elite” and “highly-selective” universities in England. They describe how independent schools have got this more or less sewn up: over 60% of A-Level students at independent schools go to “highly-selective” universities, compared with 22% from state schools. (About 7% of English school students are in the independent sector.) Their proposed measures to deal with this undoubted social justice challenge require what Clark, in the section noted above, put nicely as the meshing of individual desires and institutional capabilities. So they argue that universities need to use contextual admission policies more effectively; they need to apply differential “standard” and “minimum” entry requirements to applicants from different backgrounds; they may need to apply random allocation policies; and more.
All of these policy ideas probably have much to be said for them. My problem with the whole approach, though, is that it lets central government direction of the English school system over recent years completely off the hook. Instead, we are asked to accept another accretion to expectations of universities, another task to add to the bundle, demanding that they address a problem created in – at least, certainly not solved by – another area of governmental responsibility.
What was once a locally planned and accountable system of “maintained” schools (of different types) is now a patchwork of academy chains and their schools; so-called free schools; and maintained schools (of different types) overseen by local authorities. Academies and free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, but maintained schools do. It’s a complete organisational dog’s breakfast, but, as with all the best government policies, it allows ministers to blame others for its failings by distributing responsibilities but not powers. Central government policies since 2010 (with, yes, Michael Gove in the frame as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, though previous Labour governments are not without blame here) were supposed to liberate school leaderships through these structural changes, thereby driving up standards. Most academic observers of the school system and the teaching in it never thought that structural changes would do this, but naturally government didn’t listen to them.
So here we now are, at the beginning of another period of Conservative rule, with the privileged independent school sector, with its spending per pupil about three times that of state schools (many of which are anyway in financial difficulties after years of falling budgets), naturally dominating access to elite universities. We must not now succumb to policy amnesia: the Conservative-led 2010 government and its Conservative successors destroyed the locally-accountable school system because of (we must assume) their hostility to local authorities as alternative sources of legitimacy. So, a decade later, the shiny new structure is producing no better results (to put it at its most generous) than what went before: “freeing” schools from local accountability wasn’t the problem, and so couldn’t be the answer.
But the Elliot Major and Banerjee proposals give ministers a handy escape route. They can say: “You see, even professors working in universities say they’re not doing enough to help disadvantaged young people: that’s where the problem lies, not in schools. I demand immediate action to end this scandal!”
When UUK – well-known for its bold statements on politically sensitive topics – next meets ministers to discuss access to higher education, my suggestion is that the UUK team adopt an air of baffled concern. “Minister, I’m afraid you’ll have to help us here: surely young people taking A-Levels now, having had all the benefits of the school system your predecessors designed, must be achieving far more than under the old system. So we don’t quite understand why you think universities now need to do more to accept people from disadvantaged backgrounds, when their schools will have done all the levelling-up that’s needed. Are we missing something, Minister?”
As civil servants say, I hope that’s helpful, UUK.
SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546