Comprehensive universities – the wrong solution to a systemic problem?

An article on the BBC web site highlighted a recent report by Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, which contends that the university system, with its obsession with hierarchies and rankings, has become a barrier to meritocracy. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40654935

Instead of driving social mobility, he says, the university system has become a mirror to existing inequalities and is amplifying social segregation.

Even if more young people from disadvantaged families are going to university, there is still a strong pattern of better-off teenagers getting into the highest ranked universities.

He says this creates a system in which a “good” university is likely to be synonymous with being the most selective, which is the opposite of what the country needs from a higher education system.

As with the debate of grammar schools versus comprehensives, the argument goes that the brightest students should be spread across the system, rather than being clustered in a small number of universities crammed with other similar youngsters.

“The root of these problems is academic selection, which has created a sector based on social class advantages,” he says.

I am not sure the problem is academic selection.

We know from parental behaviour that they assess schools and Universities based on academic performance and selection criteria (higher tariffs are seen as proxies for price and value – if the entry barrier is high, it is seen to be a “good” University)

There has also been a relentless increase in pupils achieving A* grades, presumably because they want to be able to get on the course they want, at a university they perceive to have a good reputation – so selection works both ways.

Although we know that poorer young people are still less likely to go to university than their better-off classmates, higher fees have not deterred students from applying to University and Students from all backgrounds are more likely to go to university than ever before – including the poorest, with numbers rising through the years of fee increases. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40511184

So the “barrier to meritocracy” seems to be a very nuanced one of opportunity and standards at school level, support given at home and the economic environment and attitudes to education, not simply academic selection at a University level.

Focusing on academic selection is the wrong target – or maybe we should just do away with selection criteria and simply have University catchment areas as we have done in the school system?