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As far as I'm concerned one of the biggest problems facing higher education is the major under-supply of working class students. The Dearing Report estimates that as few as seven per cent of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds make it to university, compared to 80 per cent of young people from more advantaged homes. This is a serious imbalance which needs to be addressed.'

David Robertson, Professor of Public Policy and Education at Liverpool John Moores University, has spent the past year advising Sir Ron Dearing on how to make higher education more accessible to working class students. Robertson's report, 'Widening participation in higher education by students from lower socio-economic groups and students with disabilities', was published in July as part of Dearing's national inquiry into the state of higher education. The Dearing Report, endorsed by the New Labour government, aims to increase the proportion of young people attending university from 32 per cent to 45 per cent over the next 20 years, and promises to prioritise funding for those institutions 'with the best record of attracting students from the working class, people with disabilities and disadvantaged ethnic minorities' (Guardian, 24 July 1997).

'What is most significant', says Professor Robertson, 'is that working class kids are under-represented irrespective of their qualifications. Even when poorer students possess the same standard of entry qualifications as their middle-class counterparts they are still only 70 per cent inclined to go on to university'. Robertson, who is currently a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Education at the London School of Economics, does not subscribe to the view that working class students are put off going to university by the threat of student debt: 'I don't have this kind of knee-jerk response that working class kids are more likely to object to debt than other groups of students. There is evidence that financial worries cut across all classes.'

So what accounts for the lack of working class students? 'I think the barriers are largely cultural', says Robertson. 'Universities are not looked upon as the kind of places that the working classes have traditionally gone to. Britain's universities are a product of a class society which has been about developing, sponsoring and maintaining a selective elite, and that can be very unwelcoming for poorer students. If we are going to make higher education inclusive and accessible, then universities need to change fundamentally: we need nothing short of an overhaul.'

Rather than improving pre-university education for working class students and pushing young people to raise their sights and fulfil their potential, Dearing and his supporters emphasise the need to alter universities to accommodate working class students. So what is it that today's educationalists want to change about university life?

'The most important thing is that we shift the emphasis from exclusion to inclusion', says Professor Roderick Floud, Provost of London Guildhall University. 'At many universities selection procedures are still about how best to exclude people. I think we need to start opening higher education up to everyone who can demonstrate an ability to benefit from it. You may end up in a situation where you are taking people who will go on to fail, but it is better to take people and give them a chance than constantly seek to exclude them.'

During his thirty-year career Professor Floud has undergone something of a road-to-Damascus-style conversion on the issue of selection in higher education. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Floud lectured in Economic History at the prestigious University College London and at Cambridge. It was only when he became Professor of Modern History at Birkbeck College, University of London, in 1975, and began to teach many part-time and mature students, that Floud questioned the selection methods employed at Britain's more traditional universities.

'I started to find the selection methods being used at some universities deeply unsatisfactory. Take, for example, the scholarship examination at Cambridge: this is basically an exam to exclude people. Obviously there are a vast amount of students who would like to study at Cambridge, but most of them can't because there are only a certain number of places, so you have to start thinking of ways to exclude a great number of applicants. Exams like the scholarship one at Cambridge are also extremely susceptible to coaching: one was always conscious that one was dealing with students who had been very well coached to pass those particular type of examinations. And, of course, they were always the students from the more affluent backgrounds. Students from social classes four and five have very little experience of that kind of test.'

The clear implication of Professor Floud's criticism is that universities like Cambridge need to become less demanding, and maybe even to 'dumb down', to make themselves more welcoming to students from 'lower socio-economic groups'. But isn't this just the old argument that working class people are too stupid for university, dressed up in the egalitarian language of 'widening participation'?

'No', insists Floud. 'My fundamental objection to some of the older methods of selection is that you end up selecting people like yourself, people that you yourself would like to teach, and that is not the best method of selection. You end up excluding a particular type of student. We need to make higher education more inclusive of all students who want to fulfil their potential.'

What Professors Robertson and Floud seem to be arguing is that many of Britain's universities are too rigorous and elitist for working class students, who are often ill-prepared for a stuffy academic life. But it is surely only through examination, selection and exclusion that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have been able to maintain their high educational standards. Opening universities up to everybody who can 'demonstrate an ability to benefit' must compromise the academic excellence of these institutions. And how will devaluing higher education in this way help the students?

'What has happened in the recent past is that higher education has been expanded with no regard to the purposes of that expansion', says Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Brunel University. 'I think the previous government was troubled by the prospect of large numbers of unemployed young people and wanted to create something that they would volunteer to do; so HE has been expanded at a minimum cost. This has created a floodplain of students, waiting for the economy to pick up. The expansion has been rather directionless.'

Smithers, the author of All Our Futures: Britain's Education Revolution, is concerned about the quality of higher education today: 'Within the very small education system of 30 years ago there were fewer going on to university but they were starting from a high jumping-off point, so universities could run three-year courses and get people up to a very high standard indeed. Now we are starting from a lower base, and there is a question of whether we can get people to the same standard in three years. Some courses are already being lengthened to four years, and it is becoming more difficult to find the chemists and physicists and thinkers of the future.'

Smithers thinks that everybody should have 'the opportunity to develop their talents', but argues that we also need ways of spotting 'the people who are going to be the researchers and innovators of the future': 'If you think about it in terms of sport and health: everyone should have the opportunity to go swimming as part of becoming healthy. But there are only a few people who will be able to represent the country in the Olympic Games of the future.'

Sticking with the sport analogy, Smithers argues that selection is 'important and inevitable': 'If we are going to develop the intellectual equivalents of the Sally Gunnells and the Linford Christies, then we have got to find the people with the right aptitude and be able to develop those talents. As people go up the education system, differences in ability will emerge, they will have different interests and different aspirations: we need to be able to spot those differences and apply opportunities accordingly.'

Some commentators on education are prepared to go even further than Professor Smithers and suggest that increasing student numbers necessarily leads to a decline in standards. Eric Forth, Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, was a minister of state for education and employment in the last government. He has caused much controversy by suggesting that degrees are being devalued in the name of inclusion and access: 'There is an underlying assumption that maximum participation in HE will contribute to the well-being of society. There seems to be an acceptance that a university degree is something that not only one third, but nearly one half of the population, can achieve.'

Forth thinks that the blind expansion of HE will lead to the further degradation of standards: 'Surely the great danger of the era of "one in two of the population as graduates" is that the degree will be devalued and undermined.'

You might think that is rich coming from a Conservative MP who, as a minister for education in the previous government, helped to introduce many of the measures which have contributed to the degradation of HE. But it is just a shame that it has been left to Tory has-beens to defend academic standards, while lecturers, professors and government-appointed officials are busy overseeing their further degradation. Whatever we might think of Eric Forth he is surely right that cramming as many students as possible into higher education, regardless of their qualifications and suitability, is posing a significant threat to academic standards

What is really being questioned in the debate about widening participation is the idea of externally-set standards or, as it used to be known, universal knowledge. Today's radical educationalists object to the notion that there is a universal standard of excellence to which all students, from whichever social class, should aspire. Universal knowledge is frowned upon as elitist and stuffy and hostile to the experience and understanding of working class students, women, ethnic minorities and the disabled. But relativising knowledge will do nothing to inspire students and a lot to lower standards. In fact, it is only the existence of a universal standard, against which everybody can be judged on merit rather than social status, which offers working class students the opportunity to fulfil their real potential.

Patrick, 22, recently graduated from Manchester University with a 2:1 in Accountancy and Finance. Growing up in Burnt Oak, a working class suburb in north London, Patrick was always aware that there were inequalities in the education system. 'I grew up just a bus-ride away from Harrow, in fact I could see Harrow-on-the-Hill from my bedroom window, with its clusters of schools. We always knew that the pupils at Harrow could afford the best education in the country and that they would all go on to better things, while the rest of us had to make to with second-rate teaching.'

But Patrick was determined to make it to university and got two A's and a B in his 'A' levels. 'I was over the moon wit: my results, it meant that I could also go on to university and to better things.' The important thing for working class students like Patrick is that they are tested on equal terms with every other student in the country, whether they be at Eton, Harrow or an inner-city comprehensive. In this way working class students can prove their worth and develop their potential.

By contrast, lowering standards in the name of widening participation can only rob working class students of the opportunity to prove that they are as good as anybody else. More people may emerge at the end of their education with a degree certificate, but what will it be worth to them? It is unlikely to prove to be their ticket to a better job and the good life; already, many graduates are having to fill the kind of boring clerical jobs that an 'O' level school leaver would have been doing not so long ago.

The exclusive and elitist education system of the past was by no means perfect. But rigorous examinations in the name of exclusion allowed universities to select the best students, to develop their full potential and to raise academic standards. By contrast, shifting the balance in favour of inclusion, through easier entrance requirements and without raising the level of pre-university education, will lower standards and benefit nobody´┐Żleast of all working class students who really do want to escape their 'lower socio-economic backgrounds', and make something of themselves by their own merits.

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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