UK universities should recruit students like comprehensive schools, vice-chancellor argues

In a report on academic selection in schools, colleges and universities, a university chief says institutions should adopt the principle of open access

Higher education should move towards a comprehensive model, with universities expected to accept a “mixed-ability intake”, to improve educational outcomes and social mobility, a leading vice-chancellor has argued.

Setting out his recommendations in a Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) report, the Open University chief said: “The case for comprehensive education as a better way to learn has evidence on its side, but curiously it is a case not often made for higher education.”

Prof Tim Blackman said academic selection at the age of 18 is “polarising the sector academically and socially.”

The report – Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer?– rebuts the argument for grammar schools and champions the impact diverse, mixed-ability classes have on educational outcomes and inclusion.

Prof Blackman said institutions could recruit students like comprehensive schools by introducing the “same minimum course entry requirements for all universities” and student number controls at both institutional and course level.

He also argued for “random allocation if a university is oversubscribed” to ensure every cohort was of a mixed ability.

The sector should enforce “deliberately stratified quotas, using different bands of prior attainment so that a mixed-ability intake is created for each university and course”, he added.

Blackman argued that these reforms would return the sector to “a more planned and less marketised system that could take into account skills needs as well as student demand and save hundreds of millions of pounds currently devoted to marketing, regulation and access initiatives”.

The report was published in response to a previous Hepi paper, written by Iain Mansfield, a former civil servant who is now head of education, skills, science and innovation at the thinktank Policy Exchange, which advocated greater selection in secondary education.

The Open University vice-chancellor said the hierarchical nature of the UK’s higher educational sector “casts a shadow over the whole education system” and encourages fee-paying and selective schools, which in turn hamper social cohesion and opportunities for all.

Present tools for helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds are inadequate, Blackman continued, because measures (such as POLAR) do not sufficiently account for multiple forms of disadvantage.

Contextualised offers do not go far enough, he added, and the approach taken in Scotland to allocate a proportion of places to students from disadvantaged regions with lower admission requirements implements “a type of geographical rough justice given many disadvantaged students live outside these areas”.

Open-access universities

The Open University boss, who was appointed in October last year, said: “High entry grades are generally used wherever possible to signal prestige and that, unlike schools, there is virtually no expectation on universities to add value to students’ prior attainment.

“In fact, the sector’s regulator, the Office for Students, appears to regard degree attainment that is not correlated with prior attainment to be suspect, indicating possible ‘grade inflation’ if there is a trend over time away from what prior attainment would predict.”

He added: “The prestige accorded to very selective institutions attracts students with high prior attainment, often enabled by multiple socio-economic advantages, denying these students to other institutions and polarising the sector academically and socially.”

A more comprehensive intake would create “valuable opportunities for peer learning but also encourages mutual understanding and inclusion”, Prof Blackman said, which would benefit students across the academic spectrum.

Reflecting on the record of his own institution, Blackman said Jennie Lee – the Labour minister who drove the creation of the Open University – thought people from working class backgrounds did not want “special treatment but access to a university for everyone”.

The university’s open access principle has realised Lee’s ambition, he argued, but more should be done in the rest of the sector to improve access and equality.

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