Sunday, 22 November 2009

Oxbridge - universities for the best or open to all?

A report entitled Oxford and Cambridge - how different are they? by The Higher Education Policy Institute has reopened the debate about whether our top universities should admit students on academic merit or whether they should become vehicles for social engineering. The HEPI conclude that Oxford and Cambridge explicitly should aim to achieve the “best social and ethnic mix” to ensure their student populations are more balance.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI’s Director, said:

“In terms of the nature of their student bodies, our study reveals, as is well-known, that these are notably skewed in favour of independently educated and better off students, but the report’s findings confirm that this is because of academic, not social, selection and is the result of the unequal outcomes of this country's school system.

“Nevertheless, there is some evidence to suggest that Oxford and Cambridge admit more independent school pupils than is warranted and that their insistence that they will not engage in social engineering but will make decisions about admissions on purely academic grounds leaves them vulnerable to the charge of social elitism. There seems no reason why Oxford and Cambridge should not take a leaf out of the book of some of the great American universities which are explicit that they aim to achieve the best social and ethnic mix they can while always insisting on the highest academic standards."

If there is to be wider social participation and access to Oxbridge then the obvious way to achieve this is to encourage schools in the Maintained sector to raise their game for their most able pupils. Ed Balls needs to replace the present system of judging the success of a school that is based on the lowest common denominator with a more sophisticated metric. A system of League tables and performance criteria which focuses on ensuring that each pupil achieves 5 passes A*-C at GCSE [including passes in Maths and English] only encourages schools to devote their resources to the C/D boundary. We cannot expect the maintained sector to achieve excellence where this is the case. Instead there needs to be a greater recognition of those schools who do stretch their top end to achieve high levels of A and A* pupils.

But Schools being encouraged to stretch the brightest pupils is not sufficient, for the GCSE examination system itself no longer provides the academic rigour required to stimulate young minds. Ed Balls' refusal to allow the Maintained sector to pursue the iGCSE route mitigates against academic excellence.

What I find staggering about the DCFS' approach is that there is an unwillingness to learn from the many examples of best practice that are sitting under its very nose. Sadly the Government seems to want to dumb down the education system and to undermine the success of Independent Schools, which are universally acknowledged as the best schools in the world [Pisa Survey].

Why are we so afraid of academic elites in this country? and why should we be surprised that British independent schools should send a high proportion of pupils to our top two universities?

Oxford and Cambridge - how different are they? Executive Summary HEPI 19/11/2009
Oxbridge 'still dominated by social elite' Daily Telegraph 19/11/2009
Simon Heffer's column: "Oxbridge is clearly guilty of pursuing excellence" 20/11/2009

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