The Comprehensive University: an alternative to social stratification by academic selection

Discussion paper

Blackman, T. 2017. The Comprehensive University: an alternative to social stratification by academic selection. Higher Education Policy Institute.
TypeDiscussion paper
TitleThe Comprehensive University: an alternative to social stratification by academic selection
AuthorsBlackman, T.

This paper aims to promote a debate about whether academic selection in higher education has gone too far. By too far is meant beyond what students need to succeed on a course, with little demand on teaching expertise in the most selective institutions, and into a realm of prestige and discrimination that compounds Britain’s social class inequities.
While the role of academic selection in secondary education has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for distracting from the need to improve both social mobility and skills, there is no such examination of academic selection in higher education. Instead, the less selective institutions are labelled ‘low status’ and social mobility measures are focused on small numbers of young people from low-income families gaining places in very selective ‘high status’ universities.
While this situation raises many issues about equality and whether the focus of current policies is right, it is also likely to be impoverishing the learning environment in our higher education institutions and possibly leading to worse educational outcomes overall. This is because academic selection produces social stratification and by doing so reduces the diversity of abilities and identities that successive recent studies show are resources for successful complex learning. There is not just an equality dividend to be gained from desegregating Britain’s universities but also a possibility of educational and productivity dividends.
The paper proposes mechanisms for achieving this change, based on introducing open access or basic matriculation quotas in all higher education institutions and, in England, replacing with a levy the access expenditure which is currently required if an institution chooses to charge its students more than the basic fee. The levy would be based on how imbalanced the social class intake of an institution is, and the funding raised would be allocated by formula to institutions according to their need either to increase recruitment from socially advantaged students or decrease recruitment from socially disadvantaged students. A small number of specially designated research universities would be excluded but still required to increase recruitment from non-selective schools.A variety of sources of evidence and precedents from secondary education and the United States are used to support the arguments. However, the main argument is a values-based one: that it is better for education to bring people together than to separate them.

Research GroupSocial Policy Research Centre (SPRC)
PublisherHigher Education Policy Institute
Publication dates
Print20 Jul 2017
Publication process dates
Deposited29 Oct 2018
Output statusPublished
Publisher's version
Copyright Statement

Published paper reproduced here with permission Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)

Additional information

HEPI Occasional Paper 17

Web address (URL)
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