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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Gold Dust Students Need Gold Standard Universities

Monday, August 01, 2011

The outgoing head of Universities UK, Steve Smith, has suggested that universities will try to "buy" top-performing students in an effort to increase recruitment. Such students will be "gold dust" as universities will be allowed to accept them in unlimited numbers.

When it implemented the Browne review recommendations, the government envisaged that the market in tuition fees would enable universities to expand and to accept as many students as they could attract (in contrast to the current situation, where each university is allocated a fixed number of government-funded student places). However, the government naively underestimated the number of universities that would choose to charge the top £9000 tuition fee, in order to compensate for drastic cuts in central funding. This fees benchmark would be unsustainable for the treasury, which has to pay tuition fees up front, and so the government is likely to be forced to reduce student numbers below the current cap, leading to the worst of both worlds: a higher cost to the taxpayer, with fewer student places. The one caveat is that in order not to deter the brightest students, universities will be allowed to take as many top-grade AAB students as they like; such students would be what Smith refers to as "gold dust."

This would be fine for elite universities charging the full £9000, which currently accept and receive a high proportion of applications from such students. But Smith predicts that middle-ranked universities that would usually not expect AAB quality applicants will start to dangle generous bursaries or reduced tuition fees in order to fish students from this uncapped pool. The government has responded by celebrating the fact that "Universities need to meet tough new criteria for attracting the brightest students from lower income backgrounds, including offering fee waivers and bursaries. These additional scholarships will help universities to attract the brightest and the best students."

However, this is where the government's shambles of a policy on access to higher education is exposed. Consider the case of two students, both predicted top AAB grades at A-Level.

Student A (let's call him Gordon) attends a decent but unspectacular state sixth form college. His AAB grades are significantly above the average for his peers. He comes from a comparatively poor background, and will be the first of his family to attend university. His careers adviser tells him that with these grades, he could get in at a top university - York or Durham, maybe Oxbridge. But these are all charging £9000, and he would need to live away from home. Alternatively, he could go to a middle-ranking university that will offer him half-price fees, because he represents a "gold dust" uncapped place; he could commute there on the train, and save himself living costs. His family, naturally, encourage him to opt for this place. 

Student B (let's call him Cameron) attends a good private school and sixth form college. His AAB grades are clearly very good, but many students from this college are coached into earning these top marks. Both his parents went to university, and it is naturally expected that he will attend a "red brick" like them. His parents, being comparatively wealthy, have saved enough to pay some of his fees up front, meaning the £9000 charge from a top university is not too much of a deterrent. There is never any thought, or reason, for Cameron to go to his local university, despite the temptation of cut-price fees. He will go to the university that is best for him, given his underlying abilities and educational credentials.

Gordon attends his good university, which offers him a decent experience. OK, he has to sit in some remedial classes for his first year (because most of his fellow students are there on C grades, and are not quite up to the required standard in his subject). Staff-student ratios are high; there are few tutorials or seminars, and mostly he is taught through lectures by hard-working academics, who are not quite leading names in their field. He comes out with a good degree, though having been surrounded by those just looking to achieve solid 2:1 degrees he has perhaps not been pushed by his peers or his teachers to achieve the First Class result he was capable of. He looks for work, although not having attended an especially well-known university he has to work hard to explain to employers the value of his degree, compared to that from a brand name institution. 

Cameron, meanwhile, has been to his top university, surrounded by equally bright peers and taught by leading academics; he has been pushed intellectually and achieved a very good degree, perhaps a First. He has cultivated skills in debate and gained confidence by the small group teaching that is more prominent at this leading university. His university is also a well known name in the graduate employment world, with the likes of KPMG and Accenture eager to pluck students like Cameron clutching their degrees and to take them into a well-paid career. On the other hand, his university is also a research-led institution, and keen to offer postgraduate places and bursaries to entice its best students to stay on for further study.

Both of the above scenarios are, of course, caricatures, although league tables make some of this sketch legitimate: some of the key markers between top and middle universities are their staff-student ratios, proportion of students with Firsts, small group teaching, and employability prospects. For the record, the student I most resembled back in my day is Cameron (though I never wanted to become a corporate clone at the end), and one of the universities I now work at pitches itself in exactly this league. I know from personal experience how the system entrenches privilege, taking a high proportion of students from excellent family and educational backgrounds, and sending them out to work for high powered, high paid companies, or enabling them to pursue further research (as happened to me). None of this is Cameron's fault. He certainly has every right to attend a top university with his grades, regardless of the good fortune of his private education. But there is an evident problem in the fact that Gordon's choices were governed not by which university would be best for him academically, but by that which offered the best value financially.

The government has been working hard to explain to students how the system of bursaries, and up-front payment of tuition fees, will mean that they should have a free choice as to their university, and should be able to access the institution that is best for them. However well-meaning, though, the lifting of the cap on top-performing students will actually serve to limit - or at least determine - student choices so that they are made for financial rather than academic reasons. No student, especially no student coming from a weaker educational background, should have their aspirations halted by the ceiling of debt; no top student should be encouraged by the promise of a cut price to attend a university of a lower overall quality (no matter how good that institution is for less academically capable students). Yet this is the prospect that Steve Smith raises.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:41 am

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