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Sunday, January 02, 2011


there was a time when universities were hallowed halls of learning. when (and if) you were granted access to them you felt very special. you felt like you had achieved something. there was something noble about going on to further education. it was a rite of passage, a life changing event. future earnings were not uppermost in the decision making process.

it was easier to take such an idyllic vision of education because if you got a place you got a grant from the state to study.

fast forward a bunch of years and many more people plan, and succeed, to attend university. the increase in places being offered, and accepted, being encouraged by the government, they want to have 50% of school leavers getting degrees. that may students meant that grants had to go and fees had to come in.

zip to the present and you have the situation where the con/dems have agreed to let universities increase their fees, some being allowed to charge as much as £9 thousand a year.

this isn’t about the inequity of the fees.

in today’s sunday times there was a short article about how some universities are blacklisting some a-levels. get a pass in those a-levels and it will not count as far as those universities are concerned (unless you have the offending a-level as a fourth subject). while it is the russell group who get quoted in the article (they represent the top 20 universities in the uk), others are also following suit.

now it is a case of getting the right grades and in the accepted subjects. in principle there is nothing wrong with that – assuming that the university has made it perfectly clear what a-levels are acceptable, and more importantly which ones are not.

acceptable a-level s include: biology, chemistry, french, geography, history, latin, maths, music, philosophy and physics.

ones that are not acceptable include accounting, citizenship, communications studies, dance, environmental studies, health and social care, information technology, sports studies, travel and tourism and world development.

neither list is exhaustive.

now call me an old fat trot (“you are an old fat trot” – thanks shep) but the acceptable list has just the whiff of grammar or independent school about it, while the unacceptable list is one that smacks of inner city comprehensives.

i happen to believe that no learning is wasted. if you are taught well then the lessons of learning can be applied through all aspects of your life.

the acceptable list could be seen as being rigorous and analytical giving you the tools to think clearly, skills that would be lacking from the airy fairy unacceptable a-levels. another distinction that could be made between the two lists is that one is academic and the other is practical. if you do the more practical a-levels you are, of course, not going to be clever enough to do a degree at a top university, you should be off to a technical college or a polytechnic not a university.

but hold on. in the new modern we have to care about the wealth generators of the big society let’s think who might be more useful: the philosopher or the accountant? the latin speaker or the information technologist? just what is the difference between a musician and a dancer. while it might be nice to be a classicist i am sure it is always better to do it when you come from a wealthy and connected background so that the school tie does the work so that the degree doesn’t have too.

yet this isn’t about class. oh no.

this is about the market.

when universities were hallowed halls they could be elitist. it was part of their very fabric; it was part of their reason to be.

now that universities are sitting at the table of mammon it is a bit rich (oh that is just gold, and see i did it again) they have moved from being guardians of knowledge to being service providers. universities now are educational ticketmaster: each year they offer a bunch of academic gigs and the students just apply to get their seats. there shouldn’t be a blacklist in a-levels (unless in each prospectus the university lists the acceptable a-levels allowing students to make an informed choice) once you have the required grades all that matters is: can you pay? (oh ok technically it should be: can you pay back the fees. where are the jobs? maybe in finance, maybe in sports, maybe in media just the sort of subjects that the russell group seem to be sneering at).

can’t help but think that the blacklist is there for one reason – to ensure that the right people get into the right universities.

after all we wouldn’t want them to sully the tie, would we?

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