Archive for Guardian Editorial

Offa’s Irrelevance

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on February 18, 2012 by telescoper

There is leader column in today’s Grauniad about the University entrance system which, it rightly says, is “in a mess”. It’s good to have discussion of this subject in the press but the problem is that, in the typical fashion of a Guardian editorial, this piece is worthy in sentiment but misses the basic point entirely.

The reason for visiting the theme of student access to Higher Education at this point is the kerfuffle surrounding the appointment of the next boss of Offa – the Office For Fair Access – a quango set up by the previous New Labour Administration to ensure that universities do everything possible to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to go to University. A laudable aim, but doomed to failure at the outset. The reason for this is that the system of post-16 education is fundamentally flawed (as it clearly is), then no “Access Czar”, however powerful, can hope to accomplish the vast amount of reverse-engineering required to ensure that universities can cope with failures earlier in the system. Just look at how useless Ofgen has been at regulating energy prices, for example, another case of a flawed system impervious to a quango’s attempts to improve it.

The point which is missing – and which our political masters and the educational establishment alike refuse to acknowledge – is that GCE Advanced Levels are neither an adequate preparation for University study nor a reliable way to select applications on their suitability for a given course. People who actually work in Higher Education know that this is true, but the Power That Be won’t recognize it and instead maintain that A-levels constitute a “Gold Standard”. The fact is that in the hands of Examination Boards that compete for business by lowering their standards, A-levels have become nothing other more than base metal, and tarnished to boot.

If I had my way we wouldn’t use A-levels at all to determine whether a student gets a place at their chosen University. I’ve seen so many examples of absolutely brilliant students who entered Cardiff University with modest A-levels – often having not got into their first choice institution and coming to us through the clearing system – that I’m sure there are many excellent potential students out there who didn’t get into university at all. The other side of the coin is that many students who get top A-level grades across the board don’t flourish at university at all. It’s my experience that A-levels are no guide at all to a student’s ability to do well on a course.

If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself the following question. If Cambridge only takes students with grade A* at A-level, why don’t all their students end up with First Class Degrees?

Any attempt to fix the severe problems that beset the student entrance system must begin with a recognition that this is where the fault lies.

So what’s the solution? I think it is to scrap A-levels entirely, and give the system of pre-university qualifications over to the people who actually know what students need to know to cope with their courses, i.e. the universities. There should be a single national system of University Entrance Examinations, set and moderated by an Examination Board constituted by university teachers. This will provide the level playing field that we need. No system can ever be perfect of course, but this is the best way I can think of to solve the biggest problem with the current one. Not that it will ever happen. There are just too many vested interests happy with the status quo despite the fact that it is failing so many of our young people.

Good luck to whoever it is that takes over at Offa, but it won’t make any difference who’s on the bridge because the ship is already on the rocks.