Elite Education

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When I went to university there were places for only 10% of each age cohort. By implication, the cut-off IQ level was around 120. Selection was based on examination results and an interview. At my university (Cambridge) there were men’s colleges and women’s colleges and men outnumbered women 10-to-1.

Now the situation is very different, throughout the rich world. About 50% of school leavers go on to university, which means that the implied IQ threshold is around 100 and a university degree does not have the cachet it used to. So it matters more which university one has gained a degree from.

Oxford

In the UK there is the ‘Russell Group’, which includes Oxford and Cambridge; in the USA there is the ‘Ivy League’. Here in Australia the Australian National University (ANU) stands at the head of a handful of Australian universities in TopUniversities’ global Top 100. ANU is ranked 20 and the Universities of Melbourne, New South Wales, Queensland and Sydney are bunched between 40 and 50.

The University of Adelaide is ranked 109. This is not bad, but if a foreign student is looking for somewhere to gain a prestigious degree he/she will probably prefer one of the others. So what is the University of Adelaide doing to clamber up the rankings? According to recent reports it is:

  • Seeking to merge with the University of South Australia, which is ranked 264.
  • About to advertise eight academic posts, for which only women may apply. The pool of potential candidates, from which one hopes the university will select the best, has been reduced by 50%.

On top of that, I have just read an article in the Guardian Weekly saying that the Russell Group universities have been criticised for failing “to recruit students from neighbourhoods where few traditionally enter higher education.” Labour MP David Lammy is quoted as saying, “Real progress in this area will require radical and punitive action by the government and Office for Students.”

Cambridge

I know I risk being called an elitist, and perhaps I am. The kind of education that can and should be given to someone near the top of the intelligence bell curve is not the same as can and should be given to someone in the middle. Moreover, in even the most egalitarian of societies there must be a highly educated layer of leadership with exceptional qualities. Intelligence is not the only quality that matters, but it’s probably the most important and it correlates positively with some of the others. Fiddling with recruitment of staff or students in the interests of social engineering is dangerous and wrong and it makes me stroppy.

Does anyone disagree?

A Farce or a Tragedy

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This is a follow-up to my last post, about selective schools and the need for an elite trained for leadership. I just read an article on populism by Yascha Mounk (Harvard lecturer on government) in the Guardian Weekly, and my attention was seized by the following passage:

What, George Washington asked in his Eighth Annual Address, could be more important than to pass civic values down to “the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

“A people who mean to be their own Governors,” James Madison echoed a few years later, “must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.” His fears about what would happen to America if it neglected this crucial task sound oddly apposite today: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

Of course, it would be ideal to have the entire population ‘armed with the power that knowledge gives,’ not just a meritocratic class That lofty goal has eluded us so far, in America and elsewhere.

Yascha Mounk

George Washington

James Madison

 

Homework

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Do you ever hear or read a news item, then glance at the calendar to see if it’s April Fool’s Day? That happened to me when Prince Philip’s Australian knighthood was announced.

It happened again recently when I heard about a school policy to continue setting homework but let the pupils decide whether or not to do it. After checking the calendar I decided to share the information with my readers, embellishing the news with words like ‘insane’, ‘lunacy’ and ‘mind-boggling stupidity’.  Then I thought I should do some Googling and look for arguments pro and con.  I found a site called debate.org where stakeholders – mainly schoolchildren I think – have recorded their views.  Click here to read them.

My view remains unchanged. The children who do their homework will do better in their studies and have better life outcomes.  In general they will also be the children who have well educated parents, disciplined home environments, and the advantage of living in communities where aspirations and expectations are high.  In other words, existing social differences will be reinforced and magnified.

Looking into my own heart, I know very well that I would not have got very far academically if Mr T J P Yorke, the Headmaster of my school in Crosby, had adopted this insane questionable policy.