The HE debate

At the HMC Conference in Belfast, four long sessions were devoted to debates on some pretty big issues: sport in schools, selection, political interest in schools and higher education. The HE debate brought together three Vice chancellors, the CEO of UCAS and five Heads, including Bobby Georghiou who co-chairs GSA/HMC's universities Committee, and covered some wide ranging ground: Universities' work on employability, admissions and high grades, research and, perhaps inevitably, widening participation.

Now, all of us should be committed to education as an engine of social mobility. Schools and universities transform lives, and the main reason why parents are ambitious for their children, and often make sacrifices to send them to good schools, is that they believe this improves their life chances. It's understandable and laudable that the government is concerned that access to the best universities should be fair, equable and as open as possible.

What is wrong, however, is to target narrowly defined groups to discriminate in admissions to top universities. In their access agreements - the agreements which allow them to charge £9000 in fees - most universities propose a mixture of targets to widen participation. Some of these are fair - the aims to raise aspiration amongst socially deprived groups for example, by outreach activities and summer schools. What is not fair is simply to say that by taking more students from state schools, a university will be meeting its widening participation targets. Targets by school type are inherently wrong - they assume that all students at private schools are socially advantaged, and all students at state schools are not. Self evidently this is wrong. Very many students in independent schools benefit from bursaries - some at a level of 100% . So independent schools are already in part at least providing the widening participation which the government wants - why penalise them again?

In our private discussions with Les Ebdon, Director of OFFA, we have made these points, and he is sympathetic to them. There is in fact no evidence that universities themselves - which value their freedom - are manipulating admissions. We welcome the fact that they are in the main determined not to do so and indeed call on the Office for fair access to discourage admissions targets based simply on school type.

With student fees so high, and with admissions so complex and demanding, there are however other urgent matters for universities to take forward. Bobby Georghiou gave some graphic examples of opaque and counter-productive admissions criteria - the widespread belief in medical schools, for example, that taking any part of Maths A level before the end of the Upper Sixth must mean a student is less well qualified to study medicine, which rather worryingly seemed unknown to the VCs present on the platform. We really do need some common-sense thinking on this.

Then, too, the national student survey indicates high levels of satisfaction in general, but some concerns with teaching and feedback in some subject areas at some universities: we welcome the fact that investment is being made in higher education to improve this, and we think we can help. Hence initiatives in some HMC schools to liaise with university teachers.  We welcome, in short, all close co-operation with the best universities - this can only help both us in schools and our colleagues in higher education - which is why the work of the HMC/GSA universities committee is so valuable, so important and so enriching for both sectors. 

Chris Ramsey, Co-Chair of HMC/GSA Universities Sub-Committee and Head of King's School Chester