Putting social engineering ahead of academic excellence

Professor Les Ebdon, described as the government’s higher education access adviser, wants to set challenging targets for top universities to “create a more socially balanced student body”.  Ably abetted by Vince Cable, he is putting social engineering and socialist theory ahead of academic standards.  He is damaging education, and threatening standards in our remaining world-class universities, and so undermining our economic future.  He is driving up drop-out rates, already at eye-watering levels.  He is squandering the education budget.  He is damaging the life-chances not only of deserving high achievers who will be denied places, but also of more average students who would do better with more modest targets and more vocationally-oriented training.  His is a lose-lose-lose policy.

His underlying assumption is that all kids have more or less equal potential, so all have an equal “right” to go to Oxbridge, and will perform as well as their peers when they get there.  Merely to state the implicit assumption is to refute it.

OK.  I’m going to be provocative.  I’ve got my tin hat on.  I’ve touched on this issue before, although I make no apology for returning to it as it’s right there in the news agenda.   Last time I was widely attacked by the leftist diary columns and the green ink brigade (who seemed to reply to what they thought I probably meant, but not to what I’d actually said — if indeed they read beyond the first few lines).

So can I appeal to critics on the left — let’s have less of the personal abuse, more cool analysis.  If you think there’s a flaw in my assumptions or my logic, please let me know.  So far, no one has.

Let’s start with some incontrovertible propositions.

Amongst human populations, there is a range of intelligence, as there is a range of just about all mental and physical characteristics.  Some people are brighter than others.  Always have been.  That flies in the face of socialist theory, but it’s demonstrably true.

And intelligence, at least in part, is heritable.  Bright parents tend (not always, but often) to have bright kids.

Bright parents also (not always, but often) tend to have successful careers and higher-paid jobs.

If you accept these basic ideas, you have to agree that when universities select on strict academic merit, then statistically we should expect students from higher-income families to be over-represented, compared to the population at large.  And this is exactly what we find — and exactly what sticks in Prof Ebdon’s craw.

So by insisting on “more social balance”, the good Professor is effectively calling for less-able candidates to be preferred over more able candidates.  Far from “accessing the full talent pool”, as he puts it, he wants to send universities fishing in the wrong part of the ocean.  We will get fewer excellent students, and more less good.

And let’s be clear: we’ve done no favours here to less able students who are sent to a challenging educational environment, where they may struggle to cope, and are more likely to drop out.  This is positioned as “inclusiveness”.  But it’s actually damaging their prospects.  They would have done better with courses more suited to their abilities and career prospects.

And before you lefties get out the green ink, let me be clear about what I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that all low-income people are less bright.  I’m certainly not saying that all wealthy people are bright — we can all think of counter examples.   I’m not saying that being well-off makes you bright — though being bright may well help you to become well-off.  I’m absolutely not saying that kids from a poorer background can’t get on in life (indeed I pretty nearly make that category myself).  Nor am I saying that the children of less-bright parents are necessarily less bright — just that statistically, that’s a more likely outcome.

Of course there are genuinely bright children from poorer homes, whether or not from less bright parents.  The bitter irony is this: that in the most perverse educational decision of the twentieth century, we more or less abandoned grammar schools, which had been the major highway taking bright youngsters from poor backgrounds to university, high achievement and worthwhile careers.  We kicked away the ladder, and we did it in the name of inclusiveness and social engineering.  It failed then, and it damaged those it was meant to help.  Now Professor Ebdon is trying it all over again.

The Tory party promised a cull of the quangos.  It can start with the Office of Fair Access.  It’s time for the government to get out of the university admissions business altogether, and leave it to the Universities themselves.

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7 Responses to Putting social engineering ahead of academic excellence

  1. Phil J says:

    Social Engineering eh? Well we are all only to aware of the dire effects of social engineering. We sit here on a daily basis wondering which pub, club or bingo hall will be the next to close thanks to SE and the junk science backing it up. Never have I known so many so called ‘academics’ make the evidence fit the required picture in order to enhance the required outcome-and that will never work out the way they want it either as some people will always smoke just as some people will always be brighter than others!
    The problem with people such as Professor Les Ebdon is that they OVERthink things and then generally make horrendous ‘cock-ups’-much to the detriment of us lesser mortals!

  2. mikestallard says:

    You are totally right. What is that curve like a huge bulge where the very brightest are in one end and the “challenged” at the other? It exists! I have been teaching now for a lot of years and, believe me, it exists! Only idiots and the very bigoted think that every child is exactly the same. They have obviously never been faced with a class in a State school.

    What is needed is to recognise that most people are in the middle at the very top of the bulge. Syphon off the boffs and the challenged and put them in special classes well away from the other pupils. That, believe me, will stop a lot of bullying and sneering.
    Then find out what normal children really want out of your lessons and change and change until you get it right. Then adapt.

    Universities have lost their way. What are they for?

    School uniform tells it all. When we, dear Roger, were younger, the school uniform was the same for everyone but differentiated with special ties, badges, colours and even hats. The first XI wore, for instance, different stripes on their blazers to the first XV and so on. That has changed into a total uniformity. The pink Leander Club? The light blue scarf? The College scarf? Even the elitist gown have all sort of gone.

    Now look at your picture of Lord Ebdon or whatever he is called. I mean! Dressing someone up like that must be a joke, mustn’t it?

  3. Linda Hudson says:

    we are where we are today regarding the education of our children courtesy of imoral, ignorant, meddling, ego bloated career trained politicians from all parties Parents please rebuke me if you disagree!

  4. maureen gannon says:

    Well I come from the viewpoint of someone who after the war back from evacuation, went to high school at West Ham then family moved to Old Kent road high school full so went to a secondary modern which was revamped into what was called an experimental school , I realised later in life it was the forerunner to comprehensive, now if they had kept them like that social engineering would not be needed, we left school at 14 then , you were given the choice when the changeover happened commercial /academic or technical we had one boy train as a chef and got a job as a trainee at one of the biggest hotels in London [I believe it was the Savoy] they produced joiners, those of us who took this up stayed on at school till 17 were trained for life not bits of paper that gets todays youngsters in debt and unemployed. I myself took city and guild for trade dressmaking and went to work at 17 for Hardy Amies we had 3 lads go on to Oxford we had never heard of A levels before this.
    Then we come to roday, comprehensives that are places with up to 15 hundred children some who are semi literate and just geared for accademia impersonal places where children hardly know those that teach them , a good illustration my two children one is a specialist nurse in peadiatric ITU the other in charge of Human resources in Canada neither have been to uni. my niece being offered a partnership in a finaince firm after working her way up from a waitress in a hotel to head of finance , now works for a small finance company where she is being offered a partnership , however my nephew who has done uni is unemployed social engineering like demographic change of a country for political reasons does not work .

  5. Lt. Columbo says:

    What an utter pratt in a silly hat
    👿

    Why don’t we have a real clown in charge instead?
    Like Clumbsy The Clown, from John Lawson’s Circus for example.
    http://www.johnlawsonscircus.co.uk/blog/whats-clumbsy-the-clown-been-doing-now/😆

  6. Pingback: Serendipity: a postscript on Ebdon | Roger Helmer MEP

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