Blog: Why all universities should not be ‘comprehensives’

20 July 2017

Sarah Stevens, Head of Policy at the Russell Group, explains why forcing universities to follow a ‘comprehensive school’ model would damage standards.

Why all universities should not be 'comprehensives'

HEPI’s latest occasional paper The Comprehensive University explores some radical options for reforming higher education (HE) in the UK. It takes comprehensive schools as the model for a new approach and argues that universities should no longer select students based on their abilities.

So, what would happen if these proposed reforms were put into practice?

As the paper notes, one of the key barriers for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in progressing to university is prior attainment. Only 5% of applicants with AAB or better at A-level are from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to 45% of applicants with these grades from the most advantaged backgrounds. Even for applicants with a lower grade profile of BCC or better, 38% still come from the most advantaged backgrounds, compared to 8% from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Simply lowering entry requirements would not, therefore, enable universities to achieve a ‘balanced’ social class intake.

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The paper suggests imposing a quota on universities to ensure that their student intake is balanced by class. If this were to be implemented, one of two things would happen:

  1. Universities with academically challenging courses would have to enrol students not capable of this level of study and, in effect, set them up to fail. There is a risk that they are then turned off from HE altogether. Drop-out rates would certainly rise significantly.
  2. The standard of attainment expected of students on their degrees would need to be dramatically lowered to enable them to pass. This would undermine the high quality of HE in the UK and the international competitiveness of our sector.

Neither of these options would result in good outcomes for students, universities or other stakeholders such as employers, and nor indeed for tax payers.

Introducing regulation to force universities to adhere to a comprehensive model would lead to the homogenisation of the university sector, reducing the diversity that is such a vital strength for the current system. This would have a detrimental impact on student choice.

There would also be a wide range of unintended consequences which would stem from remodelling the HE sector to become much more like the comprehensive school sector. Just to be clear: university is not ‘big school’. Going to university is one of most significant incentives for young people to work hard in school and attain good grades. If this was no longer a factor in university admission, why then should young people aiming to go to university work hard to attain good GCSE and A-level results?

Other countries have tried similar approaches and run into significant difficulties. French universities are obliged to accept anyone who passes the French baccalauréat examination and institutions are not able to select their students. This has led to high drop-out rates (historically as high as 50%) and the lowering of standards, with French universities (as opposed to the selective grandes écoles) performing very poorly in league tables.

Russell Group universities understand the benefit of a socially and culturally diverse environment on campus. They are investing significantly in widening access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and supporting them to succeed and progress to employment and further study. Progress is being made with numbers of free school meals and state school students rising significantly in recent years and a low drop-out rate for disadvantaged students. But we know more needs to be done and this remains a top priority for us.

Overhauling the university system to remove institutional autonomy over admissions and stop universities from assessing applicants’ ability and potential to succeed is not, however, the answer. This would not serve students well and would have negative knock-on consequences for the economy too.

Creating a highly-homogenised system with lower standards overall would seriously damage UK HE’s international standing. This would make it much harder to attract international staff and students, for example. In turn, this would damage the sustainability of UK universities, which overseas fees are so vital in supporting, and limit the pool of research and teaching talent available to institutions.

Although widening access and increasing diversity are imperative for universities, forcing them to take on a ‘comprehensive school’ approach would have significant repercussions and not in a positive way.

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