Higher education in Britain


On November 3 Lord Mandelson launched the policy report Higher Ambitions, in which the government lays out a vision of a society with better education and more social mobility. Those are laudable ambitions. However, problems arise when the government says it wants to “encourage" the more selective universities to give greater weight to the socioeconomic background of their applicants – i.e. Oxbridge & Co should take in more students with disadvantaged working class backgrounds.

Is it productive to force Oxbridge & Co to take in more students with working class backgrounds? The answer to this is that it depends on those students academic qualifications! To discriminate between applicants based on their socio-economic circumstances rather than their academic qualifications, will end up discarding clever students rather than rewarding them. In other words, discriminating in favour of someone on the basis of their socio-economic background means discriminating against someone else on the basis of theirs. The person you are discriminating against has done nothing to deserve it.

In a world where academic skills are the ones focused on, other factors and especially socio-economic backgrounds should not be relevant. To put it another way, the skills you can obtain from going to Oxbridge are utterly irrelevant to people who are not trained to obtain them, regardless of whether they are of a working- or upper class background.

By implementing this policy, the government will risk of forcing the level of education at top universities downwards. This is because the student’s academic abilities, naturally sets the upper bar of the level of the teaching. Assuming that you can teach students a certain amount of knowledge in a certain period of time, the academic level of new students will thus dictate the level of education when those same students graduate. By lowering the standards of admission you will consequently lower the level of graduates.