Government plans to help poor students get into top universities could end up trapping them in state dependancy, writes James Gill
Recently Lord Mandelson announced a new series of measures designed to encourage more people from lesser well off backgrounds to study at university. As a long time fan of Peter Mandelson, I was looking forward to a very sensible proposal.
What I heard instead was a disappointing scheme of giving students from poorer backgrounds who achieve lower than AAA/AAB, who plan to attend high grade universities, a two-grade head start in admissions ahead of high achieving candidates of a similar or different background.
This problem is a perfect example of when a well-intentioned objective for the Labour Party goes awry when dipped into a cauldron of middle class socialist condescending attitudes towards those of a less fortunate background than theirs.
Peter Mandelson (whose brief now includes universities) is a naturally intelligent man who studied at Hendon County Grammar and subsequently went on to read PPE at Oxford University.
I am not in any way discriminating against Mandelson on the basis of his strong academic heritage. Rather I am criticising positive discrimination proposals which are forwarded from men of these backgrounds towards those of poorer backgrounds, which seems to makes a mockery of the achievements of natural AAA/AAB students from poorer backgrounds who might be forfeited due to a BBB/BBC student getting a leg-up from the government.
Mandelson received a great education, not because of his parent’s income, but because of excellent schooling and a good upbringing. Ministers ought to remedy some home truths about the flaws in the secondary school system which still leaves a good proportion of young people without basic literacy, numeracy and science skills.
For a party committed to furthering the interests of people in poorer backgrounds, they seem to be going in the opposite direction.
Instead of drawing on the recent examples of Lewis Iwu and Michael Isola, as two students from modest backgrounds in London who made it to Oxford University through simple hard work, our ministers have unknowingly kept poorer people in the trap of state dependency than nurturing talent and skill to their optimal potential.
I see myself in the same category as Lewis Iwu and Michael Isola, an African-Caribbean student born in relatively modest Tottenham who is currently reading history at the University of York.
I reached my goal not through having my grades altered on the basis of my parents’ income, but through hard work and an intellectual curiosity nurtured by my parents and my many excellent school teachers, from a comprehensive school.
Considering these proposals are aimed to better the opportunities of people of less well off backgrounds, the focus tends to shift onto ethnic minorities in a flurry of stereotypical ghetto-dwellers and underachievers.
More often than not, the focus is likely to shift onto ethnic territory, in turn, unintentionally implying that some young BME students who earn BBB/BBC lack the intellectual capability to university than peers and others who achieve AAA/AAB.
The pattern over the past six years (or even longer) demonstrates that there have been increasing numbers of young people attaining top grades like AAA or AAB to go to university. This number would also include numbers of BME students too.
Another flaw in the government’s approach to this higher education problem is their constant focus on Oxford and Cambridge. There’s no doubt that they are the most reputable universities in the country, but doesn’t it strike one that the constant focus on these institutions reinforces their aura of elitism?
There are plenty of universities throughout the country such as Queen Mary, LSE, SOAS and Manchester, who have larger percentages of ethnic minority students, and who, although not having the mythic supremacy of Oxbridge are still highly valued in the academic community.
Their larger percentage of ethnic minority students going on to achieve highly valued university degrees is testament to a reality that people from poorer backgrounds are getting a good quality education by attaining the necessary grades.
Not to mention the new universities (post-1992 polytechnics), which, although not carrying the prestige as aforementioned institutions, pride themselves on building links with disciplines such as law, business and politics to give their students simultaneous life experience as well as academic demand.
The subjects such as law, economics, politics and history are not much different in content than courses offered at Oxbridge, albeit with lower entry standards. To focus on Oxbridge constantly might also dent the self-esteem of those applying outside the ‘elite’ field.
If there’s any problem with the admissions services in the more highly rated institutions, it’s up to the internal governance of those respective institutions to privately observe any bias’ they might have to a particular class or form of schooling and experience.
While the government is right to encourage wider participation within the more reputable universities, it is wrong to interfere with the grades achieved by the students themselves.
It reinforces a new form of state dependency which is harmful to the prospects and ethics of the education and to the academic self-esteem of the students themselves, most of whom work hard even if they don’t achieve the AAA/AAB bracket of results.
I personally think the government has overstepped the mark in state intervention in this case, creating a self-parody of a government whose commitment to further educational opportunity might squander others’ hard work.