Dead Men Left

Monday, March 07, 2005

Jeremy Paxman

There's a hint, in this post, about the big, dirty secret lurking behind the meritocratic view of higher education. It's something worth returning to in more detail, but if you thought that expanding university education - something New Labour is very keen on - would quickly produce a more equitable society... you thought wrong.

Following the huge expansion of higher education in the 1990s, not a few studies were made into the distribution of university places. This 2003 paper (PDF file) summarises its conclusions in a shocked tone:

... The effect of cognitive ability on educational attainment has actually decreased, while the role of parental social class and income in determining educational attainment has increased. In other words the British education system has become less meritocratic. A person’s ability is a poorer predictor of how well they do in educational terms now... than in the past. Likewise, the social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously. This is all the more surprising given the attempts in the ‘60s and ‘70s (and indeed ever since) to expand and broaden access to education. What is most striking is that the probability of gaining a higher-level qualification, such as a degree, has increased similarly for all ability groups. Thus high ability poor boys and low ability rich boys have increased their participation in HE by a similar proportion. Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged.

Your starter for 10: have New Labour's assorted "reforms" of the university system improved or worsened this situation?