Wednesday, 9 February 2011

How fair is the Office for Fair Access

I was surprised to see a guest speaking sense on BBC Breakfast. Harry Phibbs rightly condemned the interference of OFFA, the Office for Fair Access.

This quango was set up by New Labour, but retained by the Coalition:
The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is an independent, non departmental public body. Our role is to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for lower income and other under-represented groups following the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2006-07.
With Oxford University joining Cambridge in raising tuition fees, they will come under increasing pressure to choose applicants based not on their achievements or potential, but instead according to the ditktats of a quango whose only concern (besides its own existence) is to boost the representation of "under-represented groups".

According to Oxford's access agreement,
35. The University will monitor progress towards achieving benchmarks in terms of the representation of its undergraduate student population. The benchmarks will be
internally-developed, taking account of existing external data such as HESA PIs, and
will be established with regard to the following groups:

(a) State school students.
(b) Students from NS-SEC groups 4-7.
(c) Students from black and minority ethnic groups.

36. The University will also monitor the admission and progress of care leavers.

37. In each case, the benchmarks will be adjusted to take into account the specific
academic requirements for entry to Oxford (i.e., normally 3 A grades at A-level, in
subjects appropriate for our courses, excluding General Studies).
NS-SEC groups are based on occupational background; 4-7 are "Small employers and own account workers", "Lower supervisory and technical occupations", "Semi-routine occupations", and "Routine occupations". It's a remarkably condescending hierarchy. Oxford apparently drew the line at the lowest rung: "Never worked and long-term unemployed".

I've never understood why blacks get special mention in "black and minority ethnic", as if they are not themselves "minority ethnic". But why should any of this matter? Admission should be based on merit, and merit alone. White students shouldn't lose out on account of their skin colour. "Minority ethnic" students, and their classmates, should have confidence that they deserve their place at Oxbridge.

What's next? Steps to ensure that "under-represented groups" get a "fair" proportion of 1st and upper 2nd class degrees? If positive discrimination trumps merit at A-level, why not take it to the next level? Think of the boost it would give to "under-represented groups" seeking employment after graduation!

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