Access to higher education, class war and the middle classes

The Scottish government’s pre-legislative paperPutting Learners at the Centre: Delivering our Ambitions for post-16 Education, contains a commitment to develop access to universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is how the issue is addressed in the paper (para. 74):

‘We will consider placing a statutory duty on institutions to seek out those with the greatest potential who would be identified with reference to their grades and their situation. Institutions would then have to demonstrate how they are handling these ‘contextualised admissions’. Support would be available from the SFC-funded Schools for Higher Education Programme which would help universities to engage with target schools. A targeting scheme could form one of the ways for an institution to meet the obligations set out in the outcome agreement described above. To assist and incentivise this, we could explore a derogation on the capping system that would allow universities to over-recruit students from [disadvantaged] backgrounds.’

However, this proposal has drawn fire from the Conservative Party, who according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper have argued that ‘middle-class youngsters will lose out as a university funding crisis means it is unlikely more places will be available to accommodate the extra influx.’

So what should one make of this? Is a university education in the first instance the property of the wealthier sections of society, and if there is a constraint on the number of university places, do the middle classes have a right of first refusal? Do we really need to see access programmes as being unfair to the better off?

One of the key requirements for an equitable and stable society is that it provides genuine equal opportunities for all people regardless of background. Education is the main driver of opportunities, and those who do not have easy access to schools with the greatest resources should still have the same chance for higher education as the wealthy. As they will often not have enjoyed the same educational advantages at school it is likely that their examination performance, no matter how talented they are, will be less impressive. This is what makes the case for what the paper calls ‘contextualised admissions’.

I strongly support this particular initiative by the government, and I hope that it will not be distracted by such criticism.

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7 Comments on “Access to higher education, class war and the middle classes”

  1. Al Says:

    Do you appreciate the corrosive power of money?
    What’s to stop the socially inbred setting up private universities in response to this?


  2. The wealthy have first refusal on everything: that’s the whole point of being wealthy.

    I think this is the very definition of playing with fire. More equity in university admissions would be great, but more state control over university admissions seems thoroughly dangerous. From an English perspective, both Wales and Scotland seem to be heading towards an unprecedented level of explicit state control over HEIs, and presumably we will follow in the wake.

    I would myself feel more comfortable with an approach that toughened the requirements to retain charitable status. So far in England this has been a big issue for schools but nothing like the issue it should have been for HEIs – I’m not sure what the case is in Scotland. That would avoid any precedent-setting around control of admissions that the whole of UK HE might come to regret.

    • Vijay Says:

      Could we assume a scenario in a few years that cardiologists and surgeons saying in their web profiles that they came through non-contextualized route? The problem lies in poor performing schools, their bad teachers and almost negligent parents. But saying this will incur the wrath of PC brigade! Nice support for SNP in this article, as expected!

  3. Vincent Says:

    The big problem with your stance is that politically it is impossible. You could have a system of payment which would catch all, whether they can afford it or not. Or you could have access to those with questionable qualification. You cannot really have both and expect it be funded by government vote. The middle classes will not allow largesse from the State they are not getting without placing poor law restrictions on it.

  4. Donal Clancy Says:

    What many of these initiatives fail to realise is that we are overeducating the underclass. A re-read of “Brave New World” is called for. Rather than raising the expectations of the lower classes by educating them we need to focus on ways to make them happier in low level, low pay jobs.

    The “Wealthy” graduates of university have the connections and the family financial backing to progress in professions or careers. Quite frankly I don’t care how clever he is, I will not let a chav from Essex open me up with a scalpel. I will not hire him as my barrister. I will not give him access to trade my stock portfolio. I am quite happy to have him plaster my extension, sweep the street or serve my directory enquiry needs in the call centre.

    We now have an underclass who have expectations of entitlement. Bear witness to the city riots this summer. These were due to overeducation of people for whom there are no opportunities in life. In schools and universities they are shown a vista of the promised land and then find the doors are firmly closed to them. Improving access for disadvantaged students simply causes these problems for more of the oiks.

    A truly responsible education program would identify the correct educational level for the underclass, and fit them to purpose. Then we would have our own citizens doing the dirty work, and we would not have to continue to import low expectations employees from Eastern Europe, Africa and South America.

    The underclass can find contentment in drudgery only if they are not exposed to possibilities for exciting careers. Indeed the smart chav who has risen above his station is seldom content with his lot, as he just does not fit in anymore. Polite society will not tolerate him and he will not tolerate his own grass roots.

    If you haven’t figured out that this is satirical at this stage I pity you!

    • Jilly Says:

      just for a moment at the beginning, I thought you were serious…! It’s very good, have you considered working for the Torygraph?!

  5. kevin denny Says:

    The question of how applicants should be admitted to university in Ireland is also on the agenda but the issue of using contextual information is not on the agenda I am afraid. People are concerned with how we should use the Leaving Cert, for example bonus points or weighting of subjects, relatively minor issues. This cheerfully ignores the fact that a significant part of one’s exam results are explained by an accident of birth: who your parents are.
    Hence contextual information is not acceptable because it would threaten the near monopoly of the middle class.


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