by Stephen Tall on July 25, 2011
Something quite remarkable happened last week. A British politician published a thoughtful report on access to higher education without once resorting to populist attacks against universities’ admissions policies as disgraceful or disciminatory.
Simon Hughes (for it was he) was appointed the Government’s advocate for education access earlier this year, in a move most interpreted as an easy way for David Cameron to offer the Lib Dems a sop for the party’s U-turn on tuition fees. But unlike the Prime Minister himself — who has form in over-compensating for his Eton-and-Oxford upbringing by recycling inaccurate claims to make cheap points — Mr Hughes has taken time and trouble to think hard about the subject, and to offer recommendations that could actually make a difference.
‘The Hughes Report’ (as it’s slightly portentously labelled) offers 33 ways forward to encourage more young (and old) people to consider attending university. It does not shy away from saying universities can and should do more to open themselves up to students from poorer and non-traditional backgrounds, but it recognises the efforts already made, both in terms of pre-application recruitment schemes, and post-application financial aid in the shape of bursaries and hardship funds.
Tellingly, half the Report’s recommendations focus on the role of schools and colleges — of teachers, parents, government — in helping provide young people with the information they need to make an informed choice. This includes levelling with them about how much it will now cost to go to university (the facts, not the spin), but at least as importantly what qualifications they will need to aspire to their preferred careers. If your dream is to become a vet, for example, make sure you choose to study biology and chemistry at A-level.
However, there is one recommendation in ‘The Hughes Report’ with which I take issue:
It is my firm view that interviews which are conducted by an academic who will end up teaching that particular student are too subjective. … interviews should be conducted by trained admissions personnel who will not have face to face teaching responsibilities for the interviewee. (p.33)
It’s an odd comment for two reasons. First, it seems Simon Hughes believes tutors in those handful of universities which conduct interviews will automatically favour certain types of candidates — yet he produces no evidence to back up this conclusion. Such an assertion without corresponding facts is what migtht be termed, to coin a phrase, “too subjective”.
The second reason it’s odd is this: let’s take the parallel of the workplace. Is Mr Hughes seriously suggesting he’d be happy to recruit a member of his parliamentary staff without interviewing them himself? Does he really think that only trained HR personnel should conduct interviews on his behalf to ensure proper objectivity? I don’t believe for a moment he would agree to such an arrangement. Indeed, I imagine Mr Hughes would take it as a slur on his professionalism for it to be assumed that he would be incapable of objectivity when recruiting his own staff.
Interviews are, it’s true, an imperfect and flawed method of selection — for anything. Mistakes are made. But I would never hire someone to work for me based solely on their covering letter and CV. How else, other than in a personal interview, can I test an applicant’s passion for their work, or measure their true potential? Nor would I want to leave it to an HR officer, however good, to probe their specialist knowledge of my professional expertise. And I’m quite sure that the potential employees I interview like the oppotunity to size me up, and judge for themselves if they want to work with me. Interviews are a two-way process.
There’s something else important about an interview: when you make your choice of candidate you are making a personal investment not only in them, but also in your judgement. And that provides a very powerful incentive to ensure you do everything in your powers to support them, including when you make a mistake.
Simon Hughes is by no means the first person to argue that tutors cannot be trusted to interview the students for whom they will be responsible for three or four of their most formative years. However, it isn’t simply the double-standard — tutors’ interviewing skills are subjective, employers’ are objective — which I find troubling; also troubling is his belief that the admissions system needs to be outsourced in order to eliminate personal contact between tutors and applicants. Not only does that betray a fundamental lack of trust in the professionalism of tutors, it also drives a wedge into their ability to forge a rewarding relationship with their students.
Mr Hughes talked to many students in preparing his Report. Perhaps I can finish by asking him this question: did any student say they would be more likely to apply to university if there would be less personal contact with their tutors?