Sunday, June 18, 2006

Widening Participation

Recently, Radio FiveLive, forgetting to say for just a few minutes that they are the official World Cup Radio Station, did a special report on the 'problems' of widening participation strategies at university level. Part of the programme focused on talking to some incredibly smart teenagers who had failed to get interviews/offers at university for courses which, by most standards, are generally accepted to be significantly oversubscribed in terms of applicants. Their beef was that, having been predicted straight "A-triple-stars" (or whatever this week's grading system is) and perhaps even having got excellent work experience, they found that places had been "given away" to students who were predicted far worse grades, offered places requiring lower grades, and who lacked their experience.

"This is outrageous" shrieked their parents; "we've struggled to send our child to a good school, they've always wanted to be a vet/doctor and this is how all their hard work gets rewarded!" Meanwhile in the report, other, more multi-lingual and multi-regional-accented, teenagers fought to develop their articulacy expressing how brilliant it was to get a chance to do such a degree despite not having spent their entire life working towards the right qualifications for the right university for this particular course.

Hmmm. Doesn't seem very fair does it?

Except...

Let's clear up two key problems in the argument FiveLive presented.

1. if it wasn't for these pesky upstarts with less wonderful predicted A levels, the lovely hardworking teenagers would be guaranteed their places.

WRONG.

Sorry, but there aren't enough places even if NONE of the "I've been encouraged through widening participation strategies" pupils got anywhere near applying let alone being offered places.

2. certain children were being given an unfair advantage in being offered places with lower predicted grades and offers requiring less perfect achieved grades

PROBLEMATIC AS WELL AS WRONG.

There are two issues at stake here. One is to do with the idea of unfairness and lower grades. Is it fair that some students, having been 'lucky' enough to have families who recognise and can act upon giving their children chances to go to good schools (I use the terms advisedly since I know all too many who went to 'good schools' and had the most miserable and destructive experience imaginable because of the competitive ambition and expectations demanded of them) should be 'penalised' for their success?

Well it depends partly on how you see the penalties that are already stacked up against other students: those whose families are unable or unwilling or inexperienced at being able to get their children out of attending less good schools; those who have no family experience of higher education and perhaps would struggle to recognise the value of continued education. One could make an argument that their potential or even actual lower grades have added value - that because things are much harder for them to do well at all, that their achievements should count higher.

Ouch. I know what some of you are thinking, so let's mention the phrase that's no doubt in some readers minds: social engineering.

It seems so simple for some to get indignant about the concept of recognising inequalities and trying to do something to change the impact of those inequalities. Because of course all that is required is harder work. And then they would get the same grades and could properly and fairly compete for the limited places.

Except that this isn't really the case is it? It's like simplistically claiming that if you work hard, you will be rewarded. Hmmm. Your job is a shit shoveller. Chances are that despite working long exhausting hours, your chances of some great reward are slender.

Yes, it is undoubtedly tough to see your motivated hard-working offspring fail to get what they feel they deserve. But it is hardly as if students are being told they can get absolutely rubbish grades to be offered interviews and places ahead of all the predicted-to-be-high achieving students. The difference in their PREDICTIONS (a key point I will come back to shortly) is often less than a couple of overall grades (say three Bs rather than ABB or AAB). Moreover, it was revealing that even amongst the carefully selected students on the programme complaining about not being given a chance despite their hard work and predicted successful grades, all was not lost. Indeed, one young man said that after taking a year out he had since reapplied and HAD been offered a place. Additionally, when he had asked for feedback about why he had not been offered interviews or a place, he was told that his personal statement was flawed. (He actually complained about how short the word limit was to be able to explain and cover all his amazing experience and commitment to doing the course. Hah. Welcome to the world of having to write succinctly, of making careful choices in what you include and what you prioritise. Skills that usually better educated students are well taught in but clearly this one hadn't grasped. There is actually more to getting a place than just good predicted grades).

Which brings me to the second issue within the debate about the 'unfair advantage' in offering places for 'lower predicted grades'.

I have always held that students applying to university before their results is utterly flawed and generally nonsensical. How many people do you know - you may be one yourself - who had great predicted grades and then flunked the entire thing. Cloud did. So did someone else I know. The reasons for flunking are pretty irrelevant, but flunking happens. Illness, a death in the family, just being stoned. Predicted grades are often useless in ascertaining what someone actually achieves in terms of grades.

And that is before we even get to the matter of how helpful A level grades are as an indicator of university level success or even of being inspired by university education (these may not be the same thing). Given that actually many older universities have relatively small proportions of non-traditional A-level route students, for example, it is interesting that still so many can find it difficult to adjust to university life and the requirements of degree-level education. This DESPITE all the perceived preparation of 'good schools' and high A levels. Predicted or even achieved A level grades also do not necessarily tell you much about how wonderful you will be at the job (which is where the topic of work experience etc DOES present some problems but more on that later).

Anyway, my ill-made point is this. Even discounting that for some achieving an excellent set of A-level grades is made easier by their circumstances, the point is that university places are (pre-clearing) NOT offered on actual grades but predicted ones. Less good schools unfortunately often deflate predicted grades, as much as better schools often inflate. It's an expectation thing. So why wouldn't other issues - why SHOULDN'T other issues - count? Potential, for example?

Arguably, where students have not JUST been working to get high predictions (and perhaps achieve those predictions) AND have also got excellent experience, that should clearly count for something, as evidence of potential. But there can be all sorts of reasons why obtaining such experience might also be as shaped by circumstances beyond the control of the student (e.g. not being bought up on a farm) that again have nothing to do with the actual potential and talent a young person may have to contribute to a degree subject and ultimately perhaps the profession. And as the example of the young man from the programme showed, just getting the experience and the high predicted grades does not in itself mean a perfect application: you can still end up screwing up the personal statement.


Now I'm not prepared to go so far as to say that all Widening Participation strategies are good and well thought through. But rarely is it the case that ALL places on a course are set aside for students targeted through Widening Participation - it's usually just a proportion (though thankfully most places have realised that it does have to a reasonable proportion if you're not just going to replicate social division with token non-traditional entrants). And what often lets down Widening Participation is what happens when the students walk through the door of the institution. Transition is also vital. Some universities have received criticism for WP because, looking at some statistics, completion and success can still be hard for students coming through non-standard routes or from non-traditional backgrounds. But let's just take a simple example like obtaining work experience in vacation-time: it is not unreasonable to see that for students from economically more secure backgrounds, for those prepared/able to economically support their offspring through education, obtaining unpaid work experience is going to be much easier. Whilst such work experience might not be deemed essential in terms of university insisting or providing these opportunities - it may be 'optional' - for some it is going to be much harder to take up these valuable 'optional ' opportunities than for others. Does that make those less financially able to take these chances less capable than their counter-parts? I doubt it? So just getting students in through the front door and feeling that the Widening Participation job is done and from now it IS the mythical level playing field is farcical.

I'm going to duck and cover now because I suspect I will just find it easier to slip back into popular and high culture discussions. Rant partially over, but I will be returning to related issues (hopefully before the end of the week) regarding dyslexia.

16 comments:

Holyhoses Rob said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Speaking as someone who would have been predicted high grades (had I stayed at school) but instead got a big fat zero, and then got two poor-to-average 'A' levels at night classes later on, I benefited from being given, as it were, the benefit of the doubt. With a C and a D, I got into a decent department, and went on to get a First (and two more degrees).

And while I was there, I saw no evidence at all that the A* students, spoon-fed all their lives, were distinguishable from the rest of us. In fact, many of them were utterly useless, lazy, and full of excuses.

I got the benefit of the doubt from a department who were impressed by my personal statement (and my references), and who then took the time to interview me, so I got the chance to impress in person. Another university invited me to interview only to humiliate me (thanks for the 6 hour drive, folks), and yet another completely ignored me.

People who leave school with not much in the way of qualifications and who get to university through other routes are often harder-working, better-motivated, and more interesting. Some of them do find it difficult to adjust, and they deserve support.

Students who - for example - get told at the age of 11 that they're failures (as they do in grammar school counties even today) also deserve a chance to shine, especially if they overcome the stigma of early failure and go on to get 'A' levels (no matter what the grade).

Not all schools are equal, and some serve students poorly. I knew a girl years ago who was written off as a no-good waste of space, and her school refused to enter her into 'O' level exams (back in the day of GCEs and CSEs). So she took seven CSEs and got seven Grade 1s (equivalent to a grade C at 'O' level).

There are two issues for parents of A*** students these days. One, they should look further afield than the traditional "good" courses at "good" universities. A lot of them aren't what they're cracked up to be, and there are fantastic options on offer all over the country at various institutions. I've always thought that Nottingham Trent was in many ways more vibrant and exciting than Nottingham Uni., for example.

Two, they need to take off the rose-tinted spectacles, as you say Lisa, and look at their loved ones' applications in the round. Personal Statement, what kind of references they'll get, evidence of being a self-starter and not a spoon-fed drone, that kind of thing.

Oops. Too long, sorry.

Holyhoses Rob said...

I have to add this:

I absolutely love the fact that Five Live, in their own drive to "widen participation," would have liked you to condense your rant into a 2-line TXT message. "Tell us what you think on 85058!"

Matt_c said...

I'm all for it. Testament to the fact that there simply aren't enough places I applied to UCAS with predicted three As, Headboy of a Grammar School, loads school prizes for English and Drama - all that shit and got turned down from Cambridge and UCL after interviews (though I doubt I did that well at them)and rejected from Birmingham and Bristol out of hand. Looking back, my personal statement wasn't great and I was hungover at my UCL i'view but still... I gave up at that point and took a year out.

Anyway my point is not my failure - which was my own - but that I was able to save and go to Zimbabwe for six months (thanks to my parents not charging me much rent), go to uni for the next four years (thanks to my parents subsidising me) and now have lived at home for another two years. My success wasn't just my own.

The fact that my parents have the means has meant that outside free education I've still been able to work towards something that will make me employable - I hope.

I would anticipate that for some people whose parents can't afford to that and for whom the opportunities aren't available education is THE way in which opportunity can be offered. It may not always be taken advantage of but it should be offered. MIddle class people like me will probably always be at least alright when push comes to shove because I'll be ok, I guess. I have the resources to try and find other routes.

Other people don't have the resources and if their talents aren't respected at 18 that might be one of the few chances to make the most of them. The middle classes will generally always have other routes open to them. A selection policy should take notice of this range of options available to applicants.

Matt_c said...

Re. the issue of good courses I applied for an English degree at Queens (I think...) and ended up doing Film and Lit at Warwick. I'm fucking glad I got turned down from Cambridge - I'd have got pissed off at the posh wankers and missed out on studying the prodfundity of low culture... :)

Gert said...

One University (Warwick, I think) tracked the correlation between A-Level Grades and degree success, and found that it was worth making lower offers to students from comps than independent schools because if you compared each with 3 A***s, the evidence showed that the ex-comp students got better degrees. Or if you looked at those getting Firsts and 2:1s and tracked back, the ex-comp students gotlower A-Level grades.

At the end of the day, a University wants a student with the best potential to get a good degree (and go onto further degrees).

When I was at East Midlands Finishing School (1986-1989) my housemates and I discovered there was a strong connection (anecdotally) between school background and application ie there was a descensing order of schools that led to an ascending level of diligent work: Public School, other Independent School, state-Grammar School, semi-selective comprehensive (eg religious ex-grammar school), bog standard comp and secondary modern.

All the people I know who got thirds, passes and fails had been to fee-paying schools, and all but one of the Firsts had been to Comp, and but one was in Chemistry and didn't count.

David Duff said...

Difficult to know quite where to start - except to say what a relief it is *not* have the 327th post on "Dr. Who-cares"!

Perhaps we should begin with a nod in the direction of the elephant by admitting that a hefty amount of what is 'taught' at so-called 'universities' is a complete waste of time and effort. Just a few comments above we have a young man admitting in his own words that he "ended up doing Film and Lit at Warwick. I'm fucking glad I got turned down from Cambridge - I'd have got pissed off at the posh wankers and missed out on studying the prodfundity of low culture..." Need I say more, except to hope that his 'Film' is better than his 'Lit'!

Anyway, the current practice of keeping young men and women occupied with what one might accurately call theraputic hobbies for approximately 5 hours a week over three years is not the point our hostess is concerned with. She is talking of proper subjects for serious students and she mentions in this context medicine and veterinary degrees.

Our hostess became exceedingly agitated on the subject of whether or not it was right for children from relatively poor and pig-ignorant families (you will get used to my habit of calling a spade a bloody shovel) who are likely to get less than 3-star grades to be passed over in favour of those who will. All I can say, from the grand old age of 67 and thus entering that stage of life during which the 'Quacks' are likely to loom large, that I sincerely hope that the medical colleges will ignore this soppy, lazy, useless socialism and stick to picking trainee doctors from the most highly qualified exam-takers. As a socialist, of course, the last thoughts our hostess would entertain would be the concerns of customers! I can only ask you, dear reader, what you will be thinking as you lay on the operating table with the surgeon(?) beaming down at you with a copy of the "Dr. Who Annual" peeping out of his pocket?

Again, this whole discussion hinges on assumptions concerning the viability and worth of so-called 'A'-levels. As it is reasonable to assume that most graduates today with a 2:1 in, say, 'Film & Lit.' would be unable to pass 5 'O'-levels set in 1950, one might suppose that they are probably not worth the pickings of my nose! This may be why so many of us are thinking of decamping to India for our operations!

JoeinVegas said...

I just finished reading a New Yorker article on admissions to Harvard (a fancy-schmancy US institution of higher learning, usually rated #1 for politicians).
Their report was an evaluation of admission standards, who does best after graduation (based on $$$ income) and why.

End result (of their conclusions): The athletes with poor grades, who just got in because they were good at a sport, made much more money after graduation (followed for 30 years). Why? They were self motivating, team players, not adverse to taking chances, made contacts in school and took advantage of them later in life. Most went into financial careers and made big bucks.

The 'bookworms' with straight A's did not so well, not being as outgoing and did not work well with others.

After school I found not one employer ever asked my grades, or activities, or anything about school. It was all based on me being able to do something.

David Duff said...

Joe confirms my belief that 9 out of 10 'universities' should be closed forthwith

Paul Fuzz said...

I did 'Film & Lit' at Warwick University. I studied animation one week. It was quite literally a Mickey Mouse degree.

corin said...

At school I didn't work very hard and got poor A-level results. When it finally dawned on me that this was not the way to improve life chances I started working harder and now have a Masters degree. So no, the idea that results from exams taken when you were seventeen are an accurate reflection of what you can do with the rest of your life is pretty ridiculous.

I worked in a university for a while, involved (to a small extent) in widening participation and have to say that I really don't know what the answer is. During my first degree I worked with a young man who should not have been there. Every task took three times as long. How does the admissions department set about sorting the people disadvantaged by social factors (and to suggest that there are not vast numbers of such people out there is extremely stupid) from people who really just are not up to it?

While I am in favour of widening participation to combat social problems, if only in the interest of fair play, part of me thinks that less students and more (desperately needed)funding is an acceptable compromise.

Finally, when I'm on the operating table I don't expect I'll give any thought at all to the A-level grades of the surgeon, nor to her preferred incarnation of Doctor Who. I shall probably be more worried about whether there will be a real boor on the ward with me...

Rob said...

I went to a fee-paying school but didn't pay fees (ah, the joys of the direct grant system). Not sure what my 'predicted' grades were but while my As in Gen Studies and Chemistry would have been no surprise, and probably neither would my B in Physics, my B in Maths came as a happy surprise to everyone. OK, so I got into University College Durham, which (as I discovered when I arrived there for my interviews) had the highest applicant:place ratio in Britain. I got a third in Chemistry (and why doesn't Chemistry count, Gert?) partly because of natural indolence, partly because of spending time bonking when I should have been at lectures, but at least to a small extent because of a conscious decision to go for breadth of education rather than depth (which is how I ended up learning quite a lot about Shakespeare, the 19th century novel, Taoism and Zen, and various other non-chemical things). I'm not trying to downplay my basic laziness (or to overstate my sexual success); that's just how it was. In the end it worked out OK. If I'd got a better degree I'd probably have done some kind of research and gone into a scientific career, with not much money or job security. In the event I had a crack at teacher training (WRONG!!!) before deciding that IT was the career for me; which it was. If I hadn't tried the teacher training, and ended up sharing a house with a computer nut, I might never have hit on the right career.

God knows what that all proves. Public school types not driven to achieve so much at university: check. Career success not necessarily based on degree class: check. Everything comes of itself at the appointed time (I Ching hexagram 24): check.

Oh, and I had the great satisfaction of proving to myself that I could do well academically at university when doing a part-time MBA at Edinburgh some years later. I picked electives that were going to interest me (unlike most of my colleagues who picked ones they thought would be undemanding) and ended up averaging B+.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Fuzzboy, that is one priceless bit of wit.

HolyHosesRob, I did try and send a text through to FiveLive but needless to say it didn't get read out.

Matt_c and Fuzzboy, I guess some would rather that university education had never expanded beyond the four core subjects of law, medicine, theology and the arts (though heaven knows it was looked down for long enough to dare to stray into reading English as a subject since OBVIOUSLY only foreign literature counted as literature). And Matt, there is definitely an entirely separate post on class in your comments to be written.

Joe, unfortunately in certain types of jobs they care all too much about grades for your degree, and even for your A-levels (you would think after getting your degree all sensible employers would abandon seeing any purpose in what you did as a teenager at least three years earlier, but no). Of course, this has nothing to do with telling the employer anything useful and lots to do with allowing them to minimise by the most fatuous method possible the numbers of applicants they need consider.

Gert, whilst those coming through non-traditional backgrounds/routes into HE may not always have the same starting point or established success, it is fascinating to see how many work so hard to achieve what they do. Motivation goes a long way and I'm also pretty much a believer that except in exceptional circumstances, most would benefit from having at least a year between A levels and university (not least to properly decide on their subject, or if indeed they actually want to go at all). And I don't mean just for a neat 'gap year' either. I say again, of the 100/150 in my faculty at uni, seven of us got first class degrees. All of us were mature students, and at just under 28 I was the youngest.

Corin, you make a wise point, and one that I have a lot of sympathy with. Some have accused me of contrariness (what's new? I say it myself!), but actually I do have some elitism in me in that if people are NOT capable (and/or not interested) then university is probably NOT the place for them. It is partly why I tend to promote students carefully choosing their degree subject to be something they are committed to rather than something they are only vaguely interested in, or because they think it will be 'useful', or because its what will pass three years. Education should be about broadening the mind and learning. University isn't for everyone, though I do believe it should be more OPEN to everyone. And appropriate support for those who can do well shuld be on offer (I'll come back to this point another time since it ties to my hinted comments about dyslexia support). So, my stance is, appropriate support BUT be prepared to tell some - maybe quite a few - that maybe it just isn't for them. For some it is actually a relief to realise that they do not HAVE to be at university (in that respect it often is less those less intellectually or educationally experienced, but more those who have slid through from school to college to uni, doing it because they weren't quite yet aware that they didn't HAVE to follow this path).

Having said that I want to address EineKleineRob's point, which is how much he learnt about himself by going through university. It would probably be a lot harder to this nowadays. My favourite line from your remarks: "Everything comes of itself at the appointed time (I Ching hexagram 24): check." 'Cos when you WERE ready for HE you proved yourself more than capable of it. I think that the learning in University is about much more than just the subject.

Matt_c said...

Paul, our first day Victor showed us Kiarostami's Throught The Cherry Trees...

I'd never been more intimidated. But then I hadn't read any Hegel either...

Did you get a similar treat?

JoeinVegas said...

Wow, long post with no pictures responded to by long comments.
And Mickey Mouse degree? The son of one of my co-workers is accepted at local university, major is "Leasure Arts" - yes, the official designation.
Me, I majored in leasure arts. Sounds nice. (ask most US fraternity members)

Oh, it's Vegas, that means golf course design, managing tennis clubs, other activities. Lots of engineering, architecure and financial courses, not an easy one, even if it sounds like fun.

Matt_c said...

Thinking about it an BA in Mickey Mouse would be quite interesting. A history of animation, and the use of magic lanterns and film technology. The history of Disney as part of American capitalism, its utopianism (EPCOT), its fantasy (The Lands and Worlds), as well as the exploitation of children as consumers and workers in the 3rd world. America's role as fantasy land generated in part by Disney - the leap to CGI. The adaptation of fairy tales. The continuation of the musical and myth.
Just think!

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Matt_c: the Mickey Mouse course. Now THAT's a course I would happily throw myself into!