The Telegraph: Class warriors fighting for “fairness”

What is the point of our university system? To promote and extend research? To prepare future employees for specialist careers? To allow UK workers to compete in a global marketplace? I don’t know whether there’s a single answer to this; I suspect it depends on the institution and the discipline. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure the purpose of any degree should not be to further social and economic inequalities. This is one of many points upon which The Telegraph and I disagree.

In an outraged piece entitled “Universities must select on merit”, the newspaper complains that some institutions “are awarding places on the basis of a system that gives points to disadvantaged students for ‘contextual’ factors, such as whether they attended a bad school or come from a poor area”. This seems reasonable to me. After all, it’s not as though A-level and GCSE results tell the whole story. University admissions tutors are interested not just in track records, but in potential. It’s not easy to work these things out – it never will be – but so far it does not appear that they’ve been getting it terribly wrong. If there was a gross discrepancy between the achievements of richer and poorer students when it came to finals, this might be a cause for concern. But there isn’t. And since all UK state schools will never, ever become Eton-style exam factories (and I don’t believe we’d want them to be), using exam results alone would be unfair. Yes, it would mean using a simple, black and white method for selection, but this is not the same as selecting “on merit”.

I went to Oxford with four top-grade A-levels – but one of these was General Studies, and neither of the MFL ones involved the study of any foreign texts. So perhaps the tutors just felt sorry for me. Still, my first tutorial partner had been to Harrow, so our first ever tutorial – on French poetry – was totally representative of Britain’s social mix (him batting for the privately-educated 7%, me – white, middle-class, grammar-school educated – representing the masses) . The tutor asked which at poets we’d studied. Old Harrovian said “Baudelaire, Eluard, Verlaine”, I said “The Fat Black Woman’s Poetry Book by Grace Nichols”. I am not exactly from the streets, but I might as well have had “pleb” tattooed on my forehead. I can imagine just how appalled the Telegraph editorial team would be. How I must have held the poor boy back! Obviously he’s the one who now has a literature PhD while I work in a totally unrelated field – no, hang on, it’s the other way round. But perhaps that’s because he got bored with all the “remedial help” I was being given. Or perhaps it just shows that what you’ve been told by someone else isn’t a marker of what you can do with it.

I don’t wish to misrepresent myself as some genius who was allowed to rise up from the masses. I am not exceptional (nor should I have to be, just to justify the fact that I took a place from someone not necessarily “better”, just richer). But pieces such as that in the Telegraph always touch a nerve because they remind me of the sense of entitlement that students who don’t come from “traditional” backgrounds are up against (and my background was still pretty “traditional”). Getting a university education is hard enough, particularly with the levels of debt now incurred. But to be surrounded by others to whom the debt is nothing – and who think you’re inferior and there on sufferance – adds an extra layer of challenge, and one that is rarely acknowledged.

What really outrages me, though, is to witness the Telegraph defending injustice in the name of “fairness”. Since when did the privilege apologists give a toss about what’s fair? This is the Telegraph argument:

Students should be admitted on the basis of their qualifications. A systematic policy of preferring less well-qualified students harms universities, just as it harms candidates who are rejected because their background is deemed “wrong”. The deficiencies of many state secondary schools are certainly a serious problem, but penalising pupils who have been lucky enough to receive a good education in the private sector does nothing to address them.

There is no reason to think admitting students who are narrowly defined as “less well-qualified” harms universities, nor is it necessarily right to assume that state school pupils having lower UCAS points is indicative of state school “deficiencies” (especially when the government is considering restricting funding so that such schools can only allow pupils to take three A-levels; this will affect scores, but it will not reduce the dedication of teachers and the abilities of their students). What alternative does the Telegraph suggest? Why go with “proven scholastic achievement” as defined by right-wing journalists? Why not just decide it all at birth (even more than we do so already)?

What really gets to me is this sudden cry of “wah, it’s not fair!”. Yes, of course it’s not fair. It’s never fair. Select on merit? Is that what Eton does? The sad thing is, I suspect the Telegraph answer to that would be a resounding “yes”.

6 thoughts on “The Telegraph: Class warriors fighting for “fairness”

  1. Really interesting post. I agree that the Telegraph is far too simplistic re what constitutes ‘merit’. On the other hand, I think that this debate that keeps being resurrected by Telegraph / Guardian doesn’t address what I consider to be the main issue – namely that one of the major problems is that university itself as a concept is elitist – and it needn’t be. By which I mean, that it should just be an option for school-leavers, rather than *the* aspirational option above all others. I think this does a massive disservice to academia, a massive disservice to those who aren’t academic, and is a major obstacle towards creating a more equal society. People have a myriad of talents – why do we prize one above all others?

    1. I agree with you on this (added comment to your piece on it). What worries me is that having a university degree has now become a prerequisite for all sorts of jobs where it wasn’t before. People who would have been more suited to working their way up (or who just can’t afford not to start work early) aren’t getting a chance. And if you add to that a belief that the privileged “deserve” the lion’s share of university places, the distortion gets even worse.

  2. *Broad claim being made without the stats to hand to back it up klaxon*

    The impression I’ve always had is that kids from “worse” schools (with the matching “worse” exam results) do better at uni than hothoused private kids with an army of As, because it shows you’re already ambitious and high achieving in less privileged environment, it shows that you’re already self-directed and very capable. Certainly my A-levels and GCSEs properly stank, and I went on to get a first, a masters with a distinction and AHRC funding for postgraduate work – all things I suspect my university was very glad to have the benefit of, and would have missed out on with a strict emphasis on the A-level points system.

    1. I can see why it’s hard to deal with the fact that someone with fewer A-levels could do just as well as or even better than someone who’s benefited from an expensive education. But like you, I suspect that doing reasonably well against the odds can take more initiative and talent than doing very well with a lot of advantages. And it would be criminal to waste the potential of students from the “wrong” background on the basis that it’s not fair on those who already have an unfair advantage (and I’m aware it’s still a bit of a fudge and that advantaged students can also be hugely talented. But it seems to me that such a fudge is far more likely to hit on real potential than what the Telegraph’s recommending).

  3. Reading the arguments from the Telegraph reminds me a lot of the arguments you get from the racist anti affirmative action types. You can’t say that it’s unfair that some people get more help to get into university when they need that help just to get to a level playing field. That probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but hopefully you see what I’m trying to say.

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