Higher education: Competition produces clusters of excellence – and that is a good thing

There used to be a cap to ensure universities had a limited number of students achieving grades AAB or higher at A-level. When the cap was lifted a few years ago, some higher education commentators were concerned that this would lead to the creation of an elite English “Ivy League”, reflective of the American higher education systems, and possibly even alienating students from poorer backgrounds less likely to achieve high grades.

Their fears have come to pass, as according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England currently over half of students achieving AAB or better at A Level are concentrated in just twelve universities (they are: Manchester, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter, Bristol, Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield and Southampton.)

However, even though there is a high concentration of high grade students attending just twelve universities, there is absolutely no reason why this should be a problem – in fact, it is quite the opposite: it is a blessing in disguise, because it gives exhibition to the healthiness of competition and the value of incentives to do well and go to the best universities. By equal measure, a competitive higher education market incentivises universities to pull out all the stops to attract the brightest and best students and be as high up as possible in the league table of results nationwide. In a marketplace with healthy competition and demonstrable incentives to strive for high standards you would expect to see cluster groups of high achievers, just as you see in sport, in retail and in entertainment. It’s worth adding, though, given that it’s one of the most important periods of their lives, that while a competitive system of higher education is going to engender different types of universities providing education to different types of people with different aptitudes and interests, consumers (students) do not want to trade off too much educational quality by pulling too hard on the lever of price sensitivity.

The other peculiar thing many people tell us is that if a higher education marketplace is too openly competitive it will work against people who are bright but from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is an absurd objection, because it will actually have the opposite effect. An education marketplace that is too money-centred would be a bad thing because, in terms of performance and results, selection against bright disadvantaged students will disadvantage the university. Consider why. Suppose Oxford and Cambridge had hiked up admission fees to attract the elite. Such a policy goes against the thing they should value most – academic credentials. If you are an employer looking to employ an Oxford graduate, who would you prefer; one who got in on scholastic merit, or one who got in because of a privileged financial background? The value of attending Oxford depends largely on the university’s reputation, which is built primarily on prior academic excellence of former students. By having applicant quality as the measure of admission, the average student quality can be increased, which then further increases the prestige, which then increases the allure for high-quality future applicants.

A system that neatly balances the admission quantity between talented young people that can pay (and do), and talented people that can’t pay and are helped along the way, is a system that is just about right. It is inevitably true that being from a privileged high achieving background does confer advantages on young people that young people from working class backgrounds do not enjoy. This upsets lots of people – but it should not. Privilege mostly comes (either directly or indirectly) from high achievement. Therefore if you want to argue that that is a bad thing, you are arguing that a world in which achievement engenders advantage is a bad thing, which amounts to devaluing merit-based advantages – and to do that is to make a mockery of applying skills and working hard in general.

James Knight is the editor of the blog The Philosophical Muser.