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Universal access to education

Our thinking on higher education is hopelessly skewed.

I’ve applied to do a degree course, albeit as a ludicrously mature student. Just to apply costs £75. True, I don’t have the basic grades required (I have others) and didn’t perform to my strength in the live test, feeling under pressure in an unfamiliar environment.

I can however show experience in and knowledge of  the subject (I wasn’t asked to), a keen desire to study and make up for my lack of academic grounding (what else is the point of studying?), a mature attitude, practical aptitude, developable skills – and I can afford the fees.

But I’ve been told I wouldn’t benefit from doing the course: there aren’t enough ‘places’ for everyone, it’s a competitive environment, other applicants ticked more of the boxes, so it’s no go. And how could I selfishly deny a young person a chance? I know, I know.

So, here’s a modest proposal. Why not have all-open universities: education malls, instead of one-size-fits-all ’boutique’ institutions with brutally selective admissions procedures creating an underclass of resentful outsiders while ensuring that academics don’t have to work too hard?

WHAT IF… anyone could apply at any time to do any course at any university, not just the OU, and be screened-out only on the basis of a standard aptitude test? We would have a completely different outlook on education, work and life!

Whose mad idea was it, when did we decide education should be a contest? The principle should surely be to treat applicants as consumers rather than contestants. Would admissions departments be overwhelmed with unsuitable applicants if entry was a right, not a privilege? Of course not: they are overwhelmed now because of the access bottleneck, having to screen thousands of desperate students all applying at once, many of them for unwanted degrees because quota cutoffs arbitrarily deny them the right to purchase their degree of choice. How pointless!

In an open system, applicants would have more choice of courses and time to choose, knowing they could ‘try-and-buy’ a bespoke degree over several years, rather than being forced to take part in a mass annual egg-and-spoon race, where the egg is a career-destroying hand-grenade they daren’t let drop. We hear a lot about ‘individual learning styles’, but only it seems when it suits the academic establishment. University entry is different: you’re not an individual, you’re a set of grades.

Why must one person be debarred from reading for the degree they want, because they have ‘only’ an A and two Bs at A-level, while another gets in through clearing with two As and a B? Either stands a chance of obtaining a 2:1, but one is excluded because – why? well, because they ‘failed’ to clear a high bar, regardless of circumstances; or because an arbitrary limit exists on places, regardless of demand?

These artificial barriers are set ultimately by Government and stem, I argue, from a failure of imagination. The lack of educational funding is a ‘meme’ that haunts successive Treasury ministers; it is a chimera. With an expansion of facilities would come expanded funding: money following the places. Instead of limiting the intake to the number of places available (an arbitrary number!), with the full £9,000 a year tuition fees being charged (another arbitrary number) there is no reason why places should not expand flexibly to meet demand.


Anyone should be able to apply to any university to do whatever courses are offered, provided they can a) pass a standard aptitude test in reading and comprehension, b) demonstrate an interest in the subject; c) meet the fees, find accommodation and support themselves. The bogus reliance on A-level grades, clearly being manipulated unfairly to massage the numbers, would disappear, to be replaced by an inclusive approach, that stigmatises no-one.

If not enough students apply for courses, those courses wouldn’t run and core funding would be reallocated to more popular courses. Any oversubscription would be met simply by running extra classes, increasing employment opportunities for academics. Class sizes could be limited, but up to about 50 there is no reason they need be; other delivery options could be considered.

More flexible finance options are needed: the system of tuition fees repayable through an income tax supervention, with other costs met through student loans, is a trainwreck coming down the line: too many professions are deskilling to guarantee future tax revenues to repay current account expenditure. Graduates marry other graduates, setting-up a double-dose of unrepayable debt. An education investment bank should be created to fund places directly, underpinned by Government guarantee. Businesses should be encouraged to sponsor courses through NI contributions and tax breaks. Education is more important even than health. Educated people live longer, more active and healthier lives, bring up children in a supported learning environment. Isn’t that worth paying for?

Attendance, too, should be less prescriptive. As in the USA, students should be able to take time out for work and travel; interchange freely with other universities; leave and come back at any time. Why confine access to one narrow, three-year window, at a time acknowledged as crucial for developing other, non-academic skills: social bonding, confidence, mature judgement?

The MA degree should be available on the same funding models as the BA. Students are too often debarred from pursuing a higher degree by the illogical refusal to extend further funding options. Graduate students are left struggling to compete for limited research council funding.

Three more ideas to end with:

  • Students should be able to have any aspect of their creative output, individual projects or learning assessed at any time, and credits awarded for, for instance, meeting reading, writing or performance targets.
  • Students should be able to obtain credits for voluntary work, for extracurricular activities such as sport or drama, for completing longer ‘work experience’ placements, or undertaking external projects.
  • Vacation times should be abolished or limited to maintenance periods and public holidays: students should be able to access facilities throughout the year and universities staff-up to meet the extra demand.


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