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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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