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8:49pm on Saturday, 17th March, 2007:

Bad Data


There's a proposal to allow university admissions tutors to see the educational background of applicants' parents.

This is a bad, bad idea.

Firstly, it's bad because it gets schools off the hook. Why should we accept "Poor Billy got low marks because his parents are not highly educated" after he's been in school for 13 years? His parents aren't going to be any better educated by the time he comes out of university — should we bump his university grade up too? And when he gets to work, should his manager accept lower quality work from him? Of course not! He can't use the same excuse indefinitely.

It's the job of the schools to work with children; universities work with adults. They shouldn't have to make allowances for poor performance unless there's a medical reason for it that's either unrelated to the subject in hand (blind people can study programming but not photography) or that's temporary (you have influenza, you get to resit the examinations). If schools can't give students the support they need to overcome a poor family background (which is what the parents' education thing is getting at), then the schools need more help until they can do so.

Secondly, although this ruse is intended to benefit students from lower-class backgrounds, it could do the opposite. All universities like good students, and if they have an easy way of telling which ones are likely to appreciate higher education, well, those are the ones they'd like. The only way they're going to take the ones from disadvantaged backgrounds is if they're forced to through quotas. Forcing quotas on them sounds all very egalitarian, but it won't look so good if the individuals concerned can't handle the course. In high-pressure degrees such as medicine, students who aren't up to speed to begin with might never catch up. If the lower-class students do fail in large numbers, will the pass mark have to be changed for them? I know I wouldn't want to be examined by a medical doctor who only got to university because he came from a council estate.

Thirdly, parents' education is not a great indicator of students' background anyway. Plenty of parents split up, educated or not, and single-parent families are at a big disadvantage over two-parent families. Some degrees are more attractive to employers than others, and some pay better than others: probation officers are generally well-educated, but they don't get a lot of money for their efforts, whereas some plumbers left school with only a handful of GCSEs and earn more than the Prime Minister.

Fourthly, universities have this information already, in more detailed form. Students are required to write a statement for their UCAS application, and so are the schools. I get to see these for the applicants I interview on Wednesdays, and it's always abundantly clear if the school thinks the prospective student has potential. That's what's useful to know: whether the student is likely to blossom at university despite mundane A-levels or not, and that's what we find out from the head teacher assessments. It's a lot more use than knowing whether a child's parents have degrees or not.

So why is this information being sought? It can only be for some kind of crude statistical analysis, but to what end? What will the data be used to show? What policies will be adopted as a result? Is it merely a stick with which to beat Oxford and Cambridge? Or is it for some grand social engineering experiment?

Neither of my parents nor my wife's parents went to university, but both of us did. I hope that doesn't count against our children when they apply for university.

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).