Here’s an election idea: why not let anyone sit Oxbridge finals? | Laura McInerney | Education
Political parties are so busy suddenly falling over themselves to put money into education, it feels as if we’re living in a learning piñata. Bang! Boris Johnson promises more cash for schools. Boom! Jeremy Corbyn will fund six years of learning for adults. Womp! The Lib Dems are making lifelong higher education free-ish.
It is not a second too soon. Schools and colleges are on their knees; adult education is in critical condition. When was the last time you met someone attending night school? So the promised money is welcome but, alone, it’s not a real vision of open access. Labour can say it will tax private schools to fund its pledges – but it is time to think even bigger.
First, what can be done to help the one-third of children who leave school without a single “good” GCSE? Colleges usually reject them from advanced courses, even in subjects that the student may be passionate about, because they are paid by results. So an endless bounty for further learning won’t reach these young people if they can’t get on to courses. Beyond paying for six years of study, Labour should announce a right for students to use that money as they choose and stop colleges pulling up the drawbridge.
At the other end of the scale, making university free sounds like the ultimate ivory tower smasher. That’s until you remember that pupils in private schools are twice as likely to get the grades to go to top universities (and are therefore the group most likely to benefit), and that there are a finite number of places. So the option to attend is still limited.
Want a truly radical idea? Weirdly, it came from a Conservative, Dominic Raab, at a conference fringe event. Why not have universities open their final exams, he suggested, so anyone could sit them or submit coursework? If you can sit an Oxford University exam and get a first, why shouldn’t you get the Oxford degree? Naturally, the university should be paid for this, but it costs little to set, invigilate and mark exam papers. A full A-level entry is roughly £85. If we are generous, and double that amount, then £165 per exam paper seems more than fair.
How would anyone learn, though, you might ask? Isn’t it the uniquely brilliant people who work in universities that provide the knowledge for exams? Not always. The most recent survey into student experience by the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank found that only around half of students felt their teachers motivated them to achieve their best work. A third didn’t even feel they clearly explained the course requirements.
If all university exams were open, newer grassroots organisations could deliver materials. During my own time at university I envied friends studying history, who bandied together, teaching one another in self-organised revision seminars, which made them much smarter than those of us schlepping by on a few contact hours of variable quality.
In the modern world, young people could share resources online and learn at their own pace. No degree would be off-limits to a person in a job, or at home caring for a child. Pass the assessments, get the certificate.
Britain has a long and proud history of opening up access in unusual ways. Ruskin College was opened 120 years ago by two American students who believed an Oxford education should be available to all. Even with zero qualifications, people could benefit from its low-cost teaching, much of which was done by mail. The college negotiated student access to Oxford’s Bodleian library and, in 1910, gained entrance for students to sit an Oxford diploma. That’s right, more than a century ago ordinary people sat Oxford qualifications. If it could happen then, why not now?
Cash keeps the lights on in education, but politicians must kick the doors down. Otherwise the years of funding promise will go to the same people who have always benefited from free further and higher education: those who are already doing well. If Labour really wants a revolution, it is time to change the rules.