Cruelty And Dr Parks

HARRY PRANCE on the University admissions row sparked by Cambridge’s Dr Geoff Parks.

In many ways, I am exactly the sort of person who ought to agree with Geoff Parks. After all, his idea that lower admission standards based on someone’s social context would be a “cruel experiment” would prove little but a relative disadvantage for me.

However, it’s clear to anyone with a smidgen of social conscience and an ability to check up some statistics that the cruelest thing that went on here was the University allowing Dr Parks to become the face of yet another embarrassing story over Cambridge admissions.

I am no economist but when 30% of A stars are awarded to the mere 7% of the country who are “fortunate” enough to have had their rental units fork out trolleys of cash to send them somewhere they’ll learn to tie a bow tie, something might be afoot.

The standard response to this, of course, is that Cambridge and the University system as a whole should not prove a theatre for social engineering – well this all seems a bit hollow doesn’t it? As long as Universities are state funded, they should be committed to fulfilling their social obligation: a key part of that is ensuring that equality of opportunity is maximised.

What’s more, despite what Geoff Parks has been spouting, it appears that adjusting offers according to educational background actually works – research at Bristol, where adjusted offers are already implemented, suggests that state sixth-form pupils admitted with results one grade lower, perform just as well as the Hooray Henrys in their finals.

But what upsets me most about all this is not the lack of social or public awareness represented in Dr Parks’ statements – it’s the mercenary attitude to education which it reveals.

I’m not sure I can have much faith in an institution that allows its representatives to put such faith in A level results. Maybe I’ve watched the History Boys too many times, but I always thought intelligence and academic capability couldn’t be reduced to mere marks on a piece of paper.

I had hoped that the whole point of a rigorous interview process was to counteract the need to trust in exam results alone, something which seems to be completely contradicted by the requirement to meet certain grades to get in. As long as we persist with this paradoxical position, the interview process’ real value is diminished by the academic trust placed in the letters churned out by the faceless of Edexcel, AQA, OCR etc. In a University where, at least for Arts students, our exams try to escape the requirements of a rubric, it seems poor preparation to base someone’s ability upon the achievement of grades determined by the achievement of arbitrary and rigid criteria.

Cambridge spends a lot of time talking about and spending money on access, but this will mean nothing without a radical shakeup of our admissions system. As long as it is clear that the A level system is a poor indicator of intelligence, adjusted offers aren’t enough.

If we’re serious about Cambridge becoming a diverse and academically exciting place, unconditional offers are the way forward. As for Dr Parks, we might borrow a line from the seminal classic The Princess Bride in our reply “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”