A Comprehensive University system? Why is the selection debate only focused on schools?


Professor Tim Blackman ,Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University , a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy , argued for a truly radical and democratic reform of the HE sector, last year, in a HEPI booklet The Comprehensive University.

We should ,he says , require all universities to have more diverse intakes – socially, ethnically and by ability. Comprehensive reform of higher education is long overdue, with its likely social and educational benefits from a ‘diversity bonus’ in all our institutions. The advocacy of selection in education he claims is driven by an impulse to separate people into deserving and undeserving, ‘us’ and ‘other’ As things stand, students at the ‘not high status’ institutions know that they are, in effect, in a low-status university and, by association, are ‘low status’ people who possibly should not be at university. These low-status students are more likely to be working class and black. They are advised to head for ‘high status’ universities if they are ‘talented’. The higher education sector currently both extends opportunity and entrenches class privilege, with the latter effect far outweighing the former. This, argues Blackman ,is a pretty shocking state of affairs that needs to be addressed on equality grounds alone, but ,he points out, there are likely to be significant educational and productivity dividends from ending it too. All students would benefit from replacing a stratified higher education system with mixed-tariff institutions where the diversity of cognitive abilities and identities would be a resource for everyone’s learning. This could be achieved through open access or basic matriculation quotas. Blackman says that a variety of admission mechanisms could be used to desegregate universities and move to all but a few being comprehensive. The simplest would be to require a fixed proportion of entry to be open access along the lines of the school academies that are allowed to use selection but only for a fixed proportion of their intake. Alternatively, there could be a minimum matriculation requirement, based on minimum threshold standards across the sector, but low enough to make a significant impact on the barrier to access created by high-entry requirements. Excess demand could then be managed using a lottery. This system could be combined with a levy, creating more diverse and more successful learning communities in all our universities.

It is interesting that debate on selection is currently almost entirely focused on the schools system and the expansion, or not, of grammar schools. . Blackman has opened up another front. About time too

HEPI Occasional Paper

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