John Denham, the Universities secretary, has said that Universities have a duty towards society in what, the Telegraph reports, is going to be seen as "a veiled attack on [the University of] Cambridge".
I have to say, right off, that I agree with Mr Denham that excellent universities like Cambridge have a clear duty to society. Their duty is to excel.
Given the current ideologically-motivated pressure universities are under to ever increase their intake of leavers educated at state schools, it's difficult to imagine how Cambridge, Oxford or any other members of the Russell Group of Universities can excel when the same government is interfering with examination setting and marking to an extent that aptitides cannot be deduced with any certainty from certificates.
Even though, for example, Cambridge has announced that it three-fifths of its intake will be from state schools this year, those in charge of education are determined to present members of the Russell group as elitist as opposed to élite, a distortion which was a gift to evolutionary biologist Bruce Charlton, who presented pressures put on universities as evidence that working-class children were less intelligent for genetic reasons. Perhaps children from poorer areas might get to the better Universities without quotas if their schools and teachers weren't hobbled by having to overexamine kids in order to tick boxes that will give Government ministers a warm, fuzzy assurance that their policies must be working, because the results are as predicted.
In 2005, Rebecca Smithers of the Guardian predicted that the Government's target of 50% of school-leavers attending university by 2010 wasn't going to be met, because not enough were sitting A-levels. This prediction seems to be behind two statements made by the Labour-party: firstly, that the school-leaving age would be raised to 18 by 2013; and secondly, that A-levels might be abandoned.
(I have to admit, though, that the target of 50% of school-leavers might not be totally about raising the number of graduates; increasing the amount of young people indebted to the state could equally be in the frame. Glasgow's Bath Street Citizen's Advice Bureau was closed in 1999, following a financial crisis which appeared after a senior member of staff stated - perhaps unwisely - he could lay his hand on proof that some instituions followed a policy of ensuring that indebtedness occurred.)
When I was at the end of my time at St Scylla's Comprehensive School in Glasgow, the news that a recent leaver had been accepted for Oxbridge went round the place like wildfire. We were so proud of her, and redoubled our own attempts to study to our utmost ability. We didn't labour under any pretensions that many of us would get to Oxbridge, we were merely strengthened by the news that the possibility existed, and wanted to do well enough to move out of the area, which was becoming infested by the incipient heroin trade.
I would never argue with the importance of education in attaining one's goals. But what about kids who aren't academic, and may end up truanting should Labour still be in power in 2013 to raise the school age? As my friend Professor Calculus suggests, why not leave the school leaving age where it is for more academic kids, but lower it for those who might do better with an apprenticeship, learning a trade and earning at the same time? It's not as if opportunities for education won't present themselves through the course of one's life, with the Open University, the University of the Third Age, night-school, etc - or, indeed, enrolment as a full-time or part-time mature student at a University.
And the Universities of the Russell Group, if left to excel, will provide the necessary results for other universities to aspire to by competition within themselves and with each other, whether or not they will attain those results. This could even bequeath to the next generation not just graduates able to learn the skills that it needs, but shop-assistants able to count, middle-managers who don't need to be sent on courses to learn how to write letters...you get the picture.
don't dumb down Cambridge, smarten state schools up
two plus two makes learning
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