In Search of 'Academic Potential'

Les Ebdon, the Head of the Government's Office of Fair Access (OFFA), called for Universities to look beyond the grades and admit pupils based on 'academic potential'. (See story) But would that solve the problem?

The problem he is trying to address is a usual aspect of British life, students from 20% of the 'affluent' postcode areas are 8 times more likely to go to one of the top 24 universities in Britain than others from plainer areas; and, when everyone takes into account all universities, the lucky winners of 'postcode lottery' are still 2.5 times more likely to get an university offer. What follows is that in most of these 'good' postcodes, house prices and rent have grown significantly over the last decade (and remained sturdy through the recession) and only people with a certain wealth and income could afford to live there. Add to this the fact that almost all white collar jobs, not just the elite ones, where you went to university matters a lot, which means the social stratification is institutionalised in Britain. Stefan Collini may proudly claim that the University places is one thing that one can not buy in the modern day UK, but seen from this perspective, it is more about the family heritage than a merit thing as Professor Collini sees it.

But is this a problem? Apart from the vantage point of Professor Ebdon, whose job is to ensure fair access, the commonly held view in Britain is not everyone has to go to university. The government's retort, when they are accused of letting the university fees rise three fold, is often how much money they are spending on apprenticeships and other vocational provisions. There is a thriving industry around vocational finding from the government, including a popular website called Indeed, university going was never as popular in Britain as in America, and after years of expansion of university education in line with the rest of the world, the pendulum of policy preference may now have swung back to a multi-tier education system (which always existed in Britain in practice), where some pupils are preselected for a broad university education (by less offensive means than their postcodes) and the others are taken through a vocational education system for the varied requirements of an industrial economy.
Except that there is no industrial economy. This view is fundamentally mistaken for two reasons. First, because the nature of jobs are changing, many vocational trades as they stand today will be extinct in ten to twenty years time (except for those requiring extreme finger dexterity, perhaps). Second, many of the new jobs that will appear, even in shop floor front, may require skills that are considered to be in the domain of higher education, and certainly outside the factory-setting of further education. The Chemical Engineer who ended up being a Barista may be an anomaly at the current time (in an earlier age, we would have marvelled at a Barista who happened to be a Chemical Engineer) but some of his skills may actually be needed for the few remaining Barista jobs in twenty years' time. And, yes, that exaggeration is intentional: Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University (cited by Michael Roth in his brilliant 'Beyond the University') estimates that 63% of the jobs by 2018 will require university level skills, a huge change from the 1970s (where our thinking is still stuck) when only 30% of the jobs required the same. So, leaving out a large chunk of the population from university education, and we should add, good university education, as most of the alternative provisions through For-Profit colleges is dire, is a sure recipe for decline and disaster.
But can one assess 'academic potential'? While it is easier to be sympathetic to Professor Ebdon's cause, his solution is indeed a fudge. The universities can indeed claim that the grades reflect 'academic potential', if not fully but better than any other indicator available; and that to ask them to correct inherent limitations of a school education corrupted by standardised testing is asking too much of them. They may widen their admission criteria if they have to, but seeking 'academic potential' may mean adding up the Parental legacy alongside, which will surely make Professor Ebdon even more unhappy. The seemingly endless debate about the universities going out to recruit more from state schools flies in the face of the wisdom of standardised testing, and one can get one or the other, but perhaps not both, not both in a sustainable manner anyway. 

Surely Professor Ebdon is well aware of all this, and so is everyone reading the report. But the fact we still feel the urge to invent empty concepts such as 'Academic Potential' perhaps tell a story of the potential of the academic. The university sector is desperately seeking legitimacy with the public, but at the very moment, the kind of education they are supposed to provide have become more relevant than ever,  they are ever more disconnected from the changes in the society around them and ever more occupied with maintaining the status quo, perhaps solely occupied with art of 'how to enter the room genteely' (to quote Ben Franklin). Unless there is a re-examination of how the universities should go about doing their business (including such radical proposals for technical degrees, as Ed Miliband is talking about), these reports and the claims of fair access will continue to remain empty proclamations. And, yes, it matters.


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