With Oxford and Cambridge universities “still dominated by white, wealthy students, many of whom are privately educated”, the “transition programme” being introduced by Cambridge does not go far enough (Cambridge sets up £500m scheme to help poor students, 2 October). While both universities are willing to accept Pre-U examinations as entrance qualifications instead of insisting on A-levels, which, as Ofqual admits, are “national qualifications based on content set by the government”, it is difficult to judge the relationship between Oxbridge and the private education sector as anything but too cosy.
Pre-U exams, run by Cambridge Assessment, are “indeed regulated by Ofqual”, as stated by the awarding body’s chief executive (Letters, 14 July), but – as a recent reply to a freedom of information (FoI) request revealed – are not subject to the “additional rules” that apply to A-levels. These “subject-level conditions” include that all awarding organisations review “similar qualifications made available by other awarding organisations”. The FoI request also disclosed that Ofqual does not collect information relating to the number of Pre-U papers set and marked by teachers in the independent sector.
Jonathan Wolff rightly complains that “there are no fruitful ideas” from the new universities minister (Education, 2 October), but doesn’t even mention the two-tiered entry qualification. Having privately educated pupils competing with students from underfunded state schools for the same university places is obviously unfair, but allowing the former to use a different entry route as well is simply unjust.
• Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope lays out a platform for improving the dire state of access to Cambridge, but his start-of-year speech betrays the fundamental ideology that will hamper effective attempts to do so. I commend the action, but without a change in attitude this work will fail to address the systematic barriers to access faced by young people applying to Cambridge.
Toope’s address contains the telling line that disadvantaged students need support to “compensate for the educational handicap they may have suffered”. This deficit model of access holds that students from “non-traditional” backgrounds applying to Cambridge are in some way fundamentally, and irrevocably, disadvantaged. Being the first in your family to go to university, or being from a state school, or being a white working-class male or BME student, or finishing school with BTecs rather than A-levels, or being an asylum seeker or refugee applicant, are not “handicaps” but diverse voices and views that can only benefit the higher education sector generally, and Cambridge specifically.
I urge the university to adopt a forward-thinking and supportive approach that encourages prospective students to recognise their own skills and how these are valued at Cambridge. The current model restricts access to those with pre-existing educational, social and cultural capital. I believe that it is only through positive and active work in this area that Cambridge can remain a world-class university – one able to look beyond a simplistic, reductive and offensive concept of “educational handicap”.
• Simon Hickford’s argument that banning essay mills would deprive people of what he admits is poorly paid, “morally dubious” work (‘Essay mills’ may be morally dubious, but it was good to work for one, 1 October) is like arguing for a free-for-all on heroin to support career opportunities for drug mules.
He may have found it stimulating to learn about new subjects, but he was harming the students whose education he undermined. He may also have endangered the future patients of unqualified doctors, people who cross bridges built by inexpert engineers, and defendants represented by inept lawyers. His glib lack of remorse betrays a self-centred lack of imagination.
His essay mill employers did not mistreat him. He was lucky. Other writers often don’t get paid for their work and cannot take legal action for fear of exposing their role in academic malpractice. Similarly, there are reports of essay mills blackmailing their own customers.
A ban would not rid higher education of this parasitic scourge, but it would change the environment in which essay mills operate. Students who turn to them in desperation face punishment, but the mills themselves are not criminalised. They can advertise on buses or hand out cards on campus. Banning them would drive them to the shadier regions of the web and would make a clear distinction between the crooks and the businesses genuinely engaged in supporting learning.
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