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Jill Kirby: A stark choice for universities

Kirby-Jill If targets are bad for the health service, why are they good for universities? The Coalition has made a powerful case against the use of targets to ration healthcare, arguing that the imposition of arbitrary, top-down goals distorts clinical priorities, ignores local needs and creates a false sense of achievement. Yet the new Office for Fair Access, which will be the ultimate arbiter of universities’ ability to charge fees, is to base its decisions on “targets and milestones”, to be constantly monitored by OFFA. And these targets will have nothing to do with academic success. As OFFA’s Director, Sir Martin Harris, explained on the Today programme this morning, the objective of the targets and milestones will be to ensure that the “social composition” of universities is changed. If the necessary social goals are not achieved, the offending university will be denied the power to charge full fees in future.

For Oxford and Cambridge, the ability to charge top-rate fees will be essential if these universities are to retain their world-class teaching methods. Both already have well-developed outreach programmes; the priority of their admissions departments is to find the students who will be most likely to take full advantage of all these great institutions have to offer. They are not interested in filling their colleges with privileged children who have been spoon fed at school, but with those who have real potential to be academic high achievers, from all backgrounds. But the combination of a poorly performing state schools sector and the motivation inculcated in bright children by the best independent and grammar schools means that the “social composition” of these universities is unlikely to be changed by allocating yet more time and resources to outreach. So when, as seems likely, the UK’s top universities are unable to pass OFFA’s milestone social goals, they will be unable to charge the fees that they need to deliver the standard of education they have, until now, been offering.

What then? A stark choice lies ahead: must they now concede that social mobility is more important than academic excellence? Or do they break free of government control, set their own fees and arrange their own funding?

As experience over the last fifteen years has shown, targets for public services lead to unintended consequences. The unintended consequence of OFFA’s targets could be the division of our university system into an independent, privately funded, world-class elite and a government-monitored “bog standard” state sector. What price social mobility then?


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