We must stop the waste of talent

Focus on education - Peter Lampl argues that, if British universities are to have a more eq

Though we read from time to time of new efforts by universities or colleges, such as Clare College, Cambridge, or Bristol University, to admit students from non-privileged backgrounds, we know that the peaks of British higher education are still overwhelmingly favourable to those from more affluent homes. At present, we are just tinkering with an injustice that feeds through into the professions and the whole social fabric.

Contrast that with the United States. When I lived there, I heard many complaints about entry to higher education, but they came from my wealthy New York friends. Despite sending their children to exclusive private schools, they grumbled, they could not get them into the top universities. I decided to find out why, starting in Boston with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, and working down the East Coast visiting Brown, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and finishing with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I subsequently spent a day at a Harvard admissions committee meeting as an observer.

Breakfast in Boston set the tone for the trip. I met the director of summer schools at MIT, a black graduate. He had gone to an inner-city school in New York, but had done well on his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a multiple-choice test designed to test aptitude and potential rather than achievement in nationally moderated exams like A-levels. MIT made him an offer in April on condition that he got on a plane to Boston and worked through till September, so that he could handle the work when the degree course started.

Up the road at Harvard, I found an admissions department with its own building. It had 50 people working in undergraduate admissions alone to admit 1,650 students each year. I wondered what they all did, and was told that most of them are involved in recruitment; each admissions officer is responsible for one area of the country and it is his or her job to identify talented kids and persuade them to apply. In the UK, by contrast, leading universities do virtually no recruitment and the admissions offices rarely have more than two or three full-time people, working alongside part-timers.

Harvard is not at all exceptional. In the universities I visited, the average size of the undergraduate admissions office was 40 people, most of them involved in active recruitment. Some have responsibility for a target group (say, a particular ethnic group), others for a geographical area.

All the American universities that I visited are committed to the idea that a fundamental part of university life is a student body with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and talents. They are private institutions that are registered charities and, as such, they serve a social purpose. They take this responsibility seriously, so they are not primarily focused on producing outstanding academics (although they naturally want to maintain academic standards), but on finding individuals who will make a valuable contribution to university life and who will become leaders in their chosen fields.

These universities acknowledge that they compete with each other to recruit the best candidates, and they go to great lengths to find them. They target by a mailshot all those whom they identify as high achievers through the database of SAT scores which is available. In addition to the admissions staff, the alumni take a very active role in identifying potential candidates - people who have won academic prizes or shone in some other way - in the areas where they live.

It doesn't end with the initial recruitment. The universities make great efforts to ensure that anybody who has been offered a place feels comfortable about accepting it. They employ current undergraduates from similar backgrounds to telephone them for a chat and to answer questions. They run "taster weekends" for groups which they believe are in particular need of encouragement, such as under-represented minorities. Some universities (Columbia, MIT, Penn and Princeton) operate a summer programme before the start of the first year, for students who are deemed to be in need of extra support. It means that these students get some academic credit and are able to hit the ground running when term starts.

The major differences between our leading universities and the US universities are the enormous resources that they put into recruitment of students from non- privileged backgrounds and their wider criteria for selection which are designed to pick out high achievers in society. Selection is on the basis of merit, but that is judged not only by academic performance but also by SAT scores, rank in class, extra-curricular activities and other outstanding achievements. And it is all done in the context of where the student is now in relation to where that student has come from.

Does all this work? The Mellon Foundation did a research study of over 20,000 students who came through the system that is now in place. The overwhelming conclusion was that the entry practices at leading American universities have been successful at creating outstanding people in all fields. For example, it was found that 40 per cent of black graduates in the survey went on to get a qualification that provides entry to the top professions in the US. This is a slightly higher success rate than that of their white counterparts; blacks were five times more likely than the general college-going population to get a qualification in medicine, and seven times more likely to get one in law.

Now look at Britain. Bristol University recently published an access report, which showed that very few students go to Bristol from the bottom 50 per cent of schools. The same is almost certainly true for the top dozen or so universities in this country. If you attend a school where the average A-level score is, say, 12 points (three Ds), the chance of getting the 28 points (two As and a B) that you need to get into Bristol is slim, even if you are brilliant. The average A-level score in some of the top private schools is greater than 28 points.

So we have nothing like a level playing field. Rather, it is a Mount Everest of injustice, with the leading private schools at the top and the inner-city comprehensives at the bottom. I am not suggesting that we should dumb down. I am suggesting that we stop wasting so much talent. Lots of children are underachieving academically through no fault of their own. They just happen to attend schools where results are below average, and these are mainly in less affluent areas.

The government's strategy is to improve state schools, particularly those that are underperforming, so that the playing field will become more level.

I support this endeavour, and the Sutton Trust, which I chair, will be funding the establishment of a number of specialist state schools which have shown significantly faster rates of improvement than the average comprehensive. But I am sure it will take many years and huge resources to make a significant difference. Even if state schools improve, we cannot expect private schools to stand still. So we have to accept the enormous disparities in performance between schools, as the Americans do, and make an allowance for them.

Bristol has started to do this. It has documented evidence that a student from a below-average performing school can be accepted with lower A-level grades (by two to three points) and get a degree as good as, or better than, the student who comes from a high performing school. This is a small opening of the door, but it doesn't nearly go far enough.

The problem with the UK is that there is no test of aptitude and potential; entry to university is measured solely on achievement at A-level or, worse still, projected achievement at A-level. The introduction of a test along the lines of the SAT would enable universities both to identify bright students who are underachieving academically and to use it as part of selection. In other words, if you had a student with Bs and Cs from a below-average performing school who scored well on a SAT-type test, you might want to do further work to see whether that student could handle the course at a top university. Interestingly, Singapore, which has in the past relied solely on A-levels for entry to its universities, is now introducing the SAT to be used in conjunction with A-levels.

No test can be entirely objective. US critics argue that the SAT discriminates against candidates from certain ethnic minorities and that good coaching and lots of practice can enable candidates to improve their scores. If we introduced a similar UK test, we would need to address these objections.

At the Sutton Trust, we are looking at the feasibility of such tests and we have discussed running pilots with leading universities. Recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that students from social classes three to six account for roughly two-thirds of the population but less than one-fifth of the entry to leading universities and medical schools. It is crucial that we find some solution to this problem - not only in the interests of social justice, but also to stop the waste of talent.

Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, a private charity established to help overcome social inequality in education

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood