Lord Mandelson has revealed a plan which proposes to make university education more easily accessible, giving applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds a two-grade head start, effectively lowering the minimum entry requirements for low-income families. The sentiment that university should be available to any capable applicant regardless of their situation is itself welcome and admirable. However, surely a more effective method of assistance would be to increase the financial aid available to disadvantaged students, rather than simply widening the goalposts and making it easier to be accepted.
The university system is built on certain foundations and academic achievement is arguably its most central and significant value. That an able and worthy applicant with the potential for academic success should be denied the opportunity for education and subsequent progression and standard of life because of their financial background is inequitable but to remedy this unfairness with a lowering of standards is a great misjudgement.
By giving any student who achieves mediocre grades at A-Level extra points to enable them to meet the requirements and be accepted by a university, this will mean that the level of ability in students and success at universities will be lowered, creating a domino effect through exam results and into the workplace with sub-capable graduates who were given a golden ticket in spite of their lower academic merit.
If there are competent applicants who are capable of achieving success at university but are prevented from doing so because of their family’s financial circumstances and background then the partiality could be balanced by offering disadvantaged students greater financial assistance, increased grants and loans and more pecuniary support from both the Government and the universities, rather than simply making it easier to get in. This would secure the same academic standards and requirements but remove the fiscal barriers which may inhibit many adept students.
If the academic standards are broken down then this will place greater demand on the already insufficient number of places available and would lower all of the education levels for students once at university because the level of capability in the seminar room and lecture theatre would be diminished, which would therefore affect the entire higher education system. While Lord Mandelson’s proposal is commendable, has thought been given to the students who are awarded a place under the new practice? The education system is formed on the basis that students are prepared for each new level they enter and are accepted on the merit of their previous achievement, which serves as an indicator that they are capable of reaching the common standards and keeping up with their peers. If students are let in under rules which warp and essentially override grades and academic attainments then there is no indicator that they will be capable of functioning at the standard level once they are accepted. The strain they will face to keep afloat for three years and the inevitable increased risk of failure are cruelty rather kindness or favour.
Social mobility and greater equality are vital to our progression as a society but sacrificing education standards and the entire education system in order to extend a hand of charity to disadvantaged applicants regardless of merit is both unfair to the students who do deserve a place based on academic capability and detrimental to the system because it effectively negates the need for A-level results which in turns negates the need for exams and inevitably education at all. Lord Mandelson’s planned change is a convenient solution to placate a component in society which is currently unable to meet the set requirements. Why not concentrate more energy on improving standards in schools and thus increase the levels of achievement at A-level, meaning that more students actually earn a place at university and are fully prepared for the demands they will face when they arrive? This would both provide more students with the opportunity to aim for university and sustain the levels of education at university. A more sensible immediate option would be to offer greater financial assistance to those who need it, which would maintain academic standards and provide the desired equality.
The new plan is equivalent to awarding places on a football team regardless of whether or not the applicants can actually play football. The need for entry requirements is not to decrease the number of accepted applicants but is to ensure that those accepted are capable of functioning at the necessary level once on the team or at university. A football team holds trials not to be elitist and discriminatory but to ascertain the level of ability and talent in each player. Similarly, the education system is not designed to inhibit acceptance but to maintain standards. Thus, anybody accepted to university must surely be required to prove they are deserving of a place based on academic achievement and ability. The element of unfairness should not be removed by removing these particular barriers but by removing financial ones, making it easier for students to receive monetary help from as many sources as possible, and to improve education levels in schools so that more students achieve the higher grades they need to be accepted.