Friday, March 16, 2007

Universities and Social Engineering

I am not completely convinced that Pete isn't trying to give us all heart attacks. He was the first to alert me yesterday to the toe-playing story, and today he has pointed us in the direction of the woeful news that

"Universities can ask applicants about their ethnicity and parents' education and occupations, under changes agreed by the admissions service, Ucas. "

How can this be about anything other than social engineering? University entrance should be based upon whether the prospective student is really interested in the subject, is genuinely curious and motivated about it, and has some reason to think they have the capability. That would be the perfect university interview, surely!?

(I would tell you about the other story he linked to, but will give you a chance to find pop your glycerine trinitrate first).


Rachel Reed said...

This really is a step backwards. This is what the country used to do to keep the lower classes down. That's why when you get married there is a column on the marriage certificate that asks "Father's Occupation".

I do so hate being asked by ethnic origin. Phone up the NHS direct for a dentist and you get asked. I never fill it in, or answer because I really feel this country should move on. Just get on with living without worrying about ethnicity.

I can't help but be cynical that the Universities (well some of them anyway) will use this as a way to filter out what they class as "undesirables".

Very bad.

Carlotta said...

Yep re being a step backwards, and your last point, though of course this time the undesirables could well be the socially advantaged, point a parent working hard and risking advancement in that career since in doing so, they'll disadvantage their kid in his university interview.

Whilst I actually suspect that due to our genetic diversity, and our general ignorance about our ethnicity, and that there is therefore little point dentists asking about it, I have a tiny, extremely vague smidgeon of sympathy for a dentist enquiring about it, in that ethnicity can impact upon health in significant Thalassemia (common in Cypriots) and Sickle Cell (Sub Saharan Africans) which could be important bits of info for a dentist to have, I think.

Allie said...

Universities have *always* been about 'social engineering'.

Before the 1950s universities were a very easy way of ensuring that the same small class of people walked into the powerful jobs. The public school and Oxbridge route still ensures this is often so.

I find it interesting that when people attempt to address the fact that there is structrual inequality (people from particular groups are either not entering the system, or are fairly badly within it) then people say 'social engineering' - and hold up their hand in horror. When we live with structures that systematically exclude or disadvatage people, isn't that 'social engineering'?

It would be pretty to think that university would be all about genuine curiosity and motivation. Sadly, from admission to graduation there is a lot more about it - lack of cash (parental support is the only way many students survive these days) and quite possibly racism too, affect people's journeys.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Allie, that's a perceptive observation! :)

I must confess that I had never seen this before. I really dislike social engineering and had never noticed, before you pointed it out, that it was *always* there.

Now it seems blindingly obvious and I'm sat here wondering how I could have missed it!

Of course, we are so very used to the class system etc, that when it is supported we don't even notice, when it is challenged we *do*. The former seems natural and the latter unnatural, when, of course, *both* are unnatural!

Sorry for all the exclamations, but I do take such delight in discovering a new way to look at things! :)

Allie, you have given me so much to think about here. Thank you. :)


not_saussure said...

One of my main worries about this proposal is that it offers an easy way for governments and university admissions departments to achieve their targets through manipulation (as if!).

Problem: government wants to encourage students from more varied backgrounds to attend university. Such potential students aren't presenting themselves in sufficient numbers for the targets to be met (hit?), perhaps because the schools typically ended by these potential students aren't doing their job particularly well, or perhaps because the potential students are being deterred by the thought of the large debts they'll incur by attending university (and don't have reasonably well-off parents on whom to fall back).

What to do? Well, what we should do, and what it's quick, easy and inexpensive to do are sometimes two different things. Not, I'm sure that such a thought might ever cross this government's mind, but some less scrupulous administration might start encouraging universities to select primarily on background rather than ability by offering the universities financial inducements so to do; attract a specified proportion of non-traditional students -- and be prepared to lay on special access courses for them if necessary -- or risk losing funding.

This differs, I think, from the structural unfairness identified by Allie; that -- with some exceptions in the form of closed scholarships to some Oxbridge colleges -- was more because it was considerably easier for children from more privileged backgrounds to meet admissions standards rather than because their background was regarded (formally, at least) as a positive qualification, along with their academic and other abilities.

Oh well, it'll doubtless help one of my nieces make up her mind about university in a couple of years' time. She's a very bright girl who's certainly Oxbridge material. Despite the fact her parents are comfortably off, she's bothered about the tuition fees and student loans this'll involve and has been seriously considering the blandishments of some of the American Ivy League universities, which are happy to offer very generous scholarships to able students from any background and any country.

The fact that her parents' wealth and educational background may well count against her chances if she applies to university here may well, I think, help her make up her mind.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't the UK offer scholarships?

Anonymous said...

Here's a different view