The debate swirling around admissions to university, and giving students from underprivileged backgrounds lower grade conditions has been a confusing mass of political ideas, but one contentious idea has stood out: it’s only fair to help people from underprivileged backgrounds achieve what they could have achieved had they been born into a rich background ‒ including being given an elite university place ‒ if they can prove that they deserve it and can honour it.
That’s the only fair thing to try and achieve in a world that is, demonstrably, very unfair. Right?
Listen, I get it.
I’m the first person to defend this point of view whenever the raging Tories that are most of the rest of my family/the British establishment come out and talk about pandering to the poor or whatever other crashing nonsense they’re spouting off on that given day. And, heaven forfend, I often find myself to be the only person round a table who still usually agrees with Nick (Clegg, in case there’s any doubt here). But not today.
Because, I don’t think coming from a disadvantaged background means you should automatically get special treatment, or replaces the need for you to just frankly, sit down, and, at the age at which you’re applying to university, do the work. I don’t mean that callously, and I certainly don’t think it’s in any way fair or equal that some people do better at school simply because of the environment they’re in with little bearing on their actual natural intellect.
But at the same time, it’s demeaning to suggest that someone coming from an underperforming school can’t achieve the same, intellectually speaking, as someone from a hothousing public one. I know this, because a great deal of my friends from Cambridge did just that.
I myself come from a privileged background – not as privileged as some; I didn’t go to a famous public school, my parents have never owned a Range Rover, we don’t have tennis courts in our garden, and Hunter wellingtons and Jack Wills-emblazoned ‘trackies’ don’t form key staples of my wardrobe – but I did go to a junior (‘prep’) private school for a couple of years before secondary, I’ve travelled around Europe, my parents are middle class, we eat well, take holidays and generally have a pretty privileged life. I was brought up with no illusions (whether rightly or wrongly) that school grades were paramount and homework was for doing; and my parents, while being generally quite casual about most things, were of the ilk that if I got all As, but a B in one subject, they’d ask what went wrong. So far, so middle class.
But, on the other hand, my small, random, unknown international school in rural France only sent 2 people to Oxbridge in the 2 years I was in the equivalent of sixth-form (including me), there was only one half-baked interview ‘prep’, a couple of bits of forgettable advice from some teachers who’d happened to go to Cambridge, and that was it. I had a fantastic teacher who really supported me and spurred me on, but basically, most of the reason why I got in to Cambridge, as far as I can tell, is because I set my sights high, put school work at the centre of my life for the years I was doing exams, and just bloody worked for it, coupled with the fact that I’ve naturally got the gift of the gab, and therefore don’t automatically go to pieces in interviews. But I wasn’t ever the absolute top of my year, and didn’t get the year’s best results either. It was pretty difficult.
My social life suffered, I often felt suffocated; exhausted; frustrated and under pressure, and sometimes all of us wondered what it was all for. But I also did some good work, learned discipline and focus, and saw that sometimes, if you put the work in, you get results (sometimes you don’t, and that’s shit, but in the case of exams, usually it works out). Yes, I had support from my parents and my school, but they didn’t sit the exams for me, do the interviews, and get me in to Cambridge. I bloody well did. And I would have been seriously offended if the admissions tutor had sent me a reduced entrance offer just because I didn’t have Downe House on my CV.
The work needs to begin before the UCAS form is filled in
I don’t want to sound all hard-line Tory, and suggest that ‘you always get out what you put in’ and that if you’re not getting anywhere, you’re just not working ‘hard enough’. In many, many, instances in life, that is just pure bollocks.
But, in this case, to be perfectly frank, if, by the time you’re filling in your UCAS form you haven’t achieved the skills needed to get the grades that Oxbridge and other elite universities ask for, then, I’m really sorry, I really am, but with the best will in the world, unless you’re some kind of chameleon genius able to turn around a lifetime’s worth of schooling and working habits in less than a year, you’re probably not going to be able to keep up with the work at Oxbridge (or similar) anyway.
That isn’t fair, and it may seem elitist, and please, show me the person who proves me wrong, but having done those three years myself, in a cohort of people who generally didn’t go to public school and had to work tooth and nail for every grade they got, I can tell you – if you ain’t getting As in your A levels at this stage, then – being honest, now ‒ maybe an elite University isn’t for you. No amount of reduced entry requirements or sympathetic social massaging at this point is going to change that, save in a few, very rare cases – who cannot themselves merit a changing of the entire system. Getting those grades, if that’s what you want, needs to be happening a long time before you apply to University.
In my experience, people don’t ‘blossom’ at Cambridge/Oxford/other elite Universities unless they were already doing pretty well for their level anyway. And I should know – I went from having to work hard but generally getting in the top 10% of my year, to being at the bottom of my year at Uni, at the receiving end of a fair few doleful headshakes, scoring red pen and many, many scathing looks from supervisors, before, in my final and third year, finally getting my head around what I was going to need to do to actually do this thing properly. It paid off, but my god, not without some real soul-searching and pulling up of bootstraps.
If you can succeed at an elite Uni without getting the grades at school, then very, very good luck to you. But me? I’d be worried. The euphoria at finding out you got a place at a top University isn’t going to help you much when you’re two terms into your course, feeling like you’re drowning. The University supervisors, tutors and exam markers aren’t going to moderate the comments and grades they give you because of the school you went to, even if they did give you the place in the first instance. Nor should they – you don’t get to be one of the best educational systems in the world by pandering to Undergraduates. Helping them, teaching them, instructing, and guiding them, yes. But pandering, no.
And it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so – a recent YouGov poll of the British public found that 63% say Universities ‘should not take in to account the social background of applicants’, while 62% would oppose Universities giving applicants from ‘underperforming state schools lower admissions requirements than those from higher performing private schools’.
Things need to change
That isn’t to say, however, that things don’t need to change. They absolutely, emphatically, do. But they need to change way, way before University level.
This debate has opened a veritable can of worms surrounding admissions standards, the extent to which exam grades test the right skills for University, and whether Universities should play a significant role in ‘social mobility’ alongside their primary and secondary school antecedents.
Firstly, I completely agree that you cannot judge a person entirely by their grades at school. Exams are maddening things, reducing an entire character, intellect and mass of thought processes to a few hurried lines on a couple of sheets of paper, testing ‒ at school-level anyway ‒ not much apart from your ability to regurgitate and write quickly. They can’t tell how much of the work is solely yours, and how much has been hot housed (or not) into you by the school or parentage you’ve been lucky or unlucky enough to find yourself part of.
Exam grades can be fudged, inflated, moderated, reduced, flunked or fluked. Exams don’t, in themselves, comprehensively test resilience, perseverance, determination, self-belief, the full scope of your interest in a subject, or even your health or state of mind on the day. But you can’t, usually, excel in exams without these things, and, with the addition of coursework, exams are so far the least-flawed way we seem to have found to judge someone’s academic ability. To paraphrase (or completely hijack, but oh well) Churchill, “Exams are the worst form of testing, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Interviews are MORE fair
Also, it is rarely pointed out that high-achieving universities actually don’t rely on exams in the way critics often suggest they do. Yes, they look at those results, and set the bar high. But Oxbridge especially, as well as notable others, are among the only institutions that interview applicants before letting them in. This, rather than being elitist, is actually arguably MORE fair.
Not only does it replicate the real world far more than an exam grade does (show me a job that doesn’t interview before hiring someone), it goes far beyond judging someone solely on what they appear to be on paper. It goes beyond the school name, the academic credentials, and gets to the heart of the subject, and gives the person a chance to show that there is more to them than can be summarised by a school name and a pithy UCAS personal statement. Interviews, as far as I can tell, and using my own as a guide, are simply discussions about the subject that you’re supposedly interested enough in to study for 3 years. Yes, they can be nerve-wracking, and yes, arguably easier for a public-school educated kid with that privileged confidence, but again, I stress, that doesn’t automatically equal success, and admissions tutors are also regularly able to read between the lines and gauge someone’s potential whether or not they have swaggering confidence – evident from the vast array of different types of people, shy and confident alike, state or public, who get in and succeed at Cambridge and similar institutions.
And if you’re the kind of person who will genuinely benefit from going to an elite university, who will thrive, learn and enjoy their time there, I think it’s downright patronising to suggest that unless you’ve been to a high-achieving school you can’t do it without some kind of social-engineering style ‘help’. It also devalues what everyone who has already got in to an elite university has already achieved.
Normal people, normal backgrounds
I realise that my experience is but one anecdotal tale amid thousands, and that the admissions statistics of elite universities would suggest another story, but in all seriousness, most of my friends at Cambridge did not go to public school.
Many of them went to their local comprehensive, a few of them even schools deemed at one point by Ofsted to be ‘in special measures’, and a few others went to the local independent school on fully-paid bursaries or at great sacrifice from their families. Not all their parents went to University, or if they did, they didn’t go to a particularly ‘top’ one. They weren’t over-privileged, they weren’t hot-housed, or the result of pushy families. They weren’t even all geeks, or odd-one-out geniuses.
They were just normal people, with reasonably standard backgrounds, working damn hard to achieve something they decided they wanted, often with no real vaunted ideas of what it could mean, or what social ‘statistic’ that would put them in to. Quite often they had had the support of a stand-out, brilliant teacher pointing them in the right direction (as I did) but not always. And most of the people I met at Cambridge generally tended to fall in to that category.
Of course, you will always makes friends with the people who seem similar to you, and yes, there were people who grouped together that you knew had been to Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Cheltenham School for Girls, St Paul’s or the Leys. But more often than not, it seemed that they were the odd ones out, and not the norm.
I would wager that apart from the seriously disadvantaged kids in, say, inner-city, broken schools, the above description encompasses much of the so-called ‘underachieving’ set that the proponents of University ‘social engineering’ want to address.
‘You can’t get in unless you apply’, is the mantra heard again and again from ‘access schemes’ – which most of the elite universities have – that work to widen the application net of universities, and rightly encourage less privileged students to apply. Yes, universities admit a far greater percentage of private-school pupils than the 7% national average of students who go to said private schools.
But universities can’t exactly help it, beyond doing more of what they’re already doing, if the applications they receive from private schools vastly outnumber those from state ones. They can help dispel the myths surrounding their institutions, and explain the admissions process, and talk all they like, but at the end of the day, Universities can only do so much.
It’s true, of course, that you can’t get in unless you apply. But if you are applying, chances are you’ve already started to feel some hint of confidence in your academic ability, some love for your subject, some genuine curiosity in learning more about it, some self-belief, and some demonstrable proof that you have some chance of getting the grades, even if you haven’t admitted it to anyone but yourself.
And all that doesn’t come from the University. That comes from what happens years and years before you even know what a UCAS form is.
Before you get to Uni
Schools, teachers and parents must shoulder most of the responsibility for enacting ‘social mobility’.
I hate that phrase, as it suggests that going to University and getting a well-paid job afterwards is the only measure of a person, but well, that seems to be the consensus these days ‒ the quality or value of the degree or the job be damned (another whole polemic I have neither the space nor the inclination to go into now) ‒ but it’s the nub of the issue being discussed. If the goal for all is to go to University, work hard, achieve the grades, and get the shiny job ‒ or I’d say, the slightly more worthwhile sense of respect for learning, self-respect, confidence in your own abilities, and cultural eye-opening on an intellectual world you otherwise wouldn’t have had access to ‒ then great. But that begins before you go to University.
Schools should foster this ambition from secondary school. They should instil in students the importance of exams and admit the uncomfortable truth that if you want to go to that or that University, you need to get that and that grade. That’s it, end of story.
If you don’t want to go; if you think elite education is a load of old bollocks, if you want to do something else with your life, or see another avenue that would suit you just as well, thanks very much, then that’s great, good luck and much respect to you.
But if you want to go to a good university and even, at this early stage, have your sights set on the trappings that you feel that University can bring you, then, those are the terms.
Expecting the institutions to patronise you, devalue their standards, pander to you or take into disproportionate account something which, frankly, isn’t their fault – the totally random act of birth that means you come from a crap school rather than a good one (and in doing so potentially take places away from other deserving applicants to boot) ‒ is just not helpful for you, or for them. I think it’s demeaning.
A random act of birth
But I fully realise the irony of that sentence – a random act of birth. Yes, that’s the issue here, and that’s what needs to be addressed. Changing your admissions offer from an A to a B isn’t going to undo the terrible injustices, prejudices or hardships (in comparison, say, to an Eton boy) that you have already suffered as someone from an underprivileged background. (A caveat just to throw the cat among the pigeons: rich kids can’t choose their parents or their schools either, and even rich kids have to work a bit hard and sacrifice things to get in to Uni. And not all the rich kids who apply get in to the top Universities. It’s true! But I digress.)
Life isn’t fair, and frankly, yes, that’s shit beyond imagining. Life, for innocent kids who can’t choose where they’re born or how academic or supportive their parents or their teachers are, should bloody well be fair.
But it’s not, and fixing that isn’t the job of universities, beyond what they’re already doing regarding access schemes and ‘elitism’ myth-busting. It isn’t up to them to compromise their standards, change their policies, or deny students from whatever background from having the satisfaction of achieving what they’ve achieved through sheer hard work, at the same damn level as every other fucker who’s had to go through it as well.
The great leveller
As I’ve already said, I come from a fairly privileged if quite-unusual, international background; one friend came from a ‘special measures’ school; another from a single parent family living nearly two hours’ commute each way from the independent school she got in to on a bursary; another went to a famous posh school; another just the local and good, but still state, comprehensive; another the bog-standard average school down the road from which less than half of the students went to Uni at all. And you know what? We all went to Cambridge, and we all bloody did it in the end, graduating with a 2.1 or better in our subjects.
Looked at it like that, Universities aren’t elitist at all ‒ they’re a great bloody leveller. Don’t degrade what people at elite universities achieve by suggesting that we’re all just over privileged shits who don’t deserve it and got there solely because of who our parents are (no more than anything else anyone ever does in life). And don’t tar us all with the same brush.
Life’s not fair, and not everyone can be born with a silver spoon in their mouth. But that’s already been done and over with and decided long before Universities receive your application. It’s up to schools, parents, teachers and students themselves to try and get the ‘best’ out of students long before they apply, if that’s the ultimate goal.
Because by the time the application form gets into the hands of the admissions tutor, then sorry, but from that point onwards, unfair though it undoubtedly is, it’s pretty much up to you.
Note: I appreciate that this is a complex and potentially sensitive issue, with many strands of relevant debate. My views are very much based on my own experiences, so I’d be up for hearing other people’s viewpoints, and would be very happy to have a sensible discussion with anyone who disagrees or has an issue with anything I’ve said. To the comment box!