Pursue talent not targets
by Matt Grist
A lot has been written about Professor Les Ebdon’s appointment to OFFA (the Office for Fair Access), and a lot of it has been about the threat the use of contextual data supposedly poses to academic excellence. Taking context into account when selecting applicants apparently inexorably leads to social engineering through positive discrimination and quotas. What rubbish.
I am worried about Ebdon’s appointment not because he is a fan of contextual data, but because of the atmosphere, as it were, he wants to create around its use. In short, he sees it as a tool for ‘equalisation’ and social justice – for crowbarring elite universities into mirroring the socio-economic mix of England as a whole. He is also unapologetically aggressive about slapping (potentially bankrupting) fines on institutions that don’t meet the targets OFFA cajoles them into agreeing.
It doesn’t have to be this way – contextual data can serve the ends of social justice whilst also boosting academic excellence. But if this winning combination is to obtain, the data must be employed for the sake of uncovering talent, not meeting equality targets in an atmosphere of aggressive policing. Social justice is best served by the bright-but-under-prepared working-class student having their talent nurtured. It is not served at all by target chasing and quotas, which often become ends-in-themselves once embedded in institutional cultures.
What’s more, before haranguing Russell Group universities, Ebdon should consider OFFA’s own criteria for what activities count towards widening access. The most important criterion seems to be spending on bursaries and fee-waivers, things demonstrated to have little effect on getting disadvantaged students into top universities. The danger lurking here is that in a punitive atmosphere of targets and quotas, we get a lot of money spent to no effect, and then quotas applied crudely in order to make up for the resulting failure.
What needs to happen is for spending to be directed to what really makes a difference and for expectations to be realistic. Then we might chip away at the horrendously skewed social make-up of elite universities’ intake.
If Ebdon wants to make a lasting contribution to social mobility in England he should drop the rhetoric of fines and targets. The latter perpetuate the myth created by Lord Browne, that simply spending money will magically get disadvantaged kids into top universities. Ebdon should instead work with academics (on the whole a left-wing bunch who would dearly love to widen access, as long as academic standards are preserved), encouraging them to spend money on the right things. The priority for any university should be a first-class admissions process; one that takes context into account in a nuanced and case-by-case way, rather than a tick box manner. At the moment, Ebdon is in danger of forcing universities to cut back on spending on admissions, for the sake of spending on bursaries and fee-waivers.
Not only does this inflate fees, it means the use of contextual data will often work against academic excellence, not for it. Top-notch admissions processes are expensive. It is cheaper to save money and just look at predicted A level results. But that approach favours the more affluent and better prepared (but not necessarily more talented) applicant. So although Professor Ebdon may not reduce the use of contextual data, he may force its use towards the crude metrics that give it a bad name.