Much-Slagging-In-The-Media is a curious village.
It has a language of its own, words such as âpovertyâ, âdiscriminatedâ, and âprogressiveâ which have a meaning unsuspected in the real world outside the village boundary.
It has its own parliament, comprised of Labour Ministers who âdidnât really lose the electionâ â it was stolen from them by the perfidious Lib-Dems.
It has its own broadcasting network, the BBC, which carefully selects the importance village inhabitants are groomed to place on world events; allocating more time to the incredible spectacle of the FIFA inspectors managing to walk down a whole flight of stairs before gratefully accepting a lift in a golf buggy to be conveyed the 200 yards to their destination than it did to the deaths of 15 tourists in Thailand.
It is rare that outsiders venture into this topy turvy land. Over the week-end, one did. David Willetts. Conservative Minister for Universities and Skills.
He arrived at the top of the High Street and proceeded to beat his drum. âHear Ye, Hear Ye, Universities should set aside a specific number of places for children from poor backgroundsâ. The village idiots loved it â this was proof of what they had been saying all along, those with rich parents secured all the places and it was money that determined university places.
It is nonsense. It speaks to the myth that University entrance is all about âASâ level results, and that it is easier to get good âASâ level results if your parents are rich enough to secure a private education for you.
The âASâ level results that the media love to trumpet; (âtwins sweep the board with five ‘AS’ levels eachâ is a perennial winner), is less than a third of the hurdle to enter University. A minor part.
Universities have survived for hundreds of years by gaming the system. The game is this. Good school pupils make good students. Good students get good degrees. Good degrees results are reflected in University league tables. Good league tables attract research grants. Good research grants attract good tutors. Good tutors achieve good degree results, thus completing the circle. At no point is the amount of money that the parents have part of that cycle.
What Universities really want is students that are happy to play their part in that life cycle. True, good âASâ levels prove that you have the motivation and application that make it seem likely you will continue to be a good student, but they could also be a complete fluke; which is why the other two thirds of the test are applied. They also give you the opportunity â either in writing or in person â to sell them the idea of âyouâ as a good student, and they give your teacher or other reference a similar chance to âsellâ them the idea.
My colleague at Aberystwyth, who like me, also gained one of two coveted âFirstâs, was a scrap metal dealer who had spent several years languishing in a mental hospital following a spectacular mental breakdown which in itself had followed a lengthy prison sentence which he was the first to admit had been thoroughly deserved! Like me, he had never sat an exam in his life, no âASâ level, no âOâ levels, no 11+. He was dyslexic, could barely read and write, and still, sadly, somewhat in difficulties with his mental health. He had been through three divorces, and was stony broke. You would be hard pressed to find a more âunderprivilegedâ undergraduate.
Was he admitted because his parents were poor? Or even because he was poor? Nope, he gained his place because he was passionate about his desire to learn; because he had dictated a passionate plea to the tutors, long before any âAâ level results were published, asking to be admitted; when that letter wasnât answered speedily to his satisfaction (being unaware of university holidays) he turned up on their doorstep and badgered every tutor he met until one took him to the Dean â and there he laid out his case to be allowed to study his subject. He got his place. No amount of âASâ levels could have superseded his place. He rewarded them with a stunning First, and went on to (almost complete)a PhD, unfortunately he died before completing it â did I mention that he was suffering from a terminal illness? God rest him.
I followed a similar path, obtaining my place long before results were published, just as well, for I had never sat an exam either. Another student was incapable of taking down notes verbatim â her English was too poor, but we would pool notes and she would spend hours with a Dictionary translating the results. She had travelled half way round the world, from a poor village in China; half the village was contributing to her fees. She had no help from any authority â she was allegedly a ârichâ foreign student â so rich that we took it in turns to feed her! â yet her dedication was boundless.
That University was oversubscribed. So why do you imagine that they gave away these places before the results were published? The answer is simple, what universities are looking for is drive and motivation, a willingness to learn â âASâ results are a minor part of the way that they rate that.
I am prepared to believe that those who attend a state school have that drive and determination knocked out of them long before the time comes to write a letter explaining why you should be given a chance to attend University. I am prepared to believe that private schools take care to nurture that spirit of independence. As do the sort of parents that make the sacrifice necessary to send a child to private school.
To imply that simply because your parents donât have money, you should be forgiven an attempt at the other opportunities that are available to show that you are good University material and given a place anyway, is providing a solution to a problem that doesnât exist. If you have drive and motivation to learn, the Universities want you â no amount of government legislation is going to make them want you any more than they do now â which is âlotsâ. You are their lifeblood.
I see Gary Lineker, multi-millionaire, footballing royalty, is complaining bitterly that the Universities donât seem to want his sonâ¦perhaps that is where the drive for Universities to accept those with lower exam results is really coming from, the parents of the feckless rich, who canât accept that it was never about money, but about motivation and application.
Willetts has backed a scheme at Kingâs College London, in which 50 state school pupils from the capitalâs poorest boroughs are admitted to medicine courses with lower grades than other applicants. What is Kingâs College going to do next? Drop the requirements for a degree in Medicine? Do we want more sub standard Doctors than we have now? Or send 50 former state school pupils on their way in life with four years debt and no degree? What relevance to their ability and motivation to study is the fact that they live in the poorest boroughs? If that really is the criteria by which they have been judged, we are either going to have some very unhappy future patients, or some very unhappy former students.