Sunday, April 01, 2007

Class war -- in British university education

We live in a society which believes that any form of discrimination is an evil akin to slavery or fascism. Yet - rub your eyes - in the sacred cause of `diversity', our universities are now being told to practise discrimination when deciding to whom they should award a place.

As part of a drive to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) says applicants will now be asked to declare whether their parents have degrees or other higher education qualifications. It has also decided to give admissions tutors information about parents' ethnicity and jobs.

The ostensible reason is to widen participation at university by compensating for disadvantage and thus creating a level playing field. However, this Orwellian formulation conceals the fact that, on the contrary, this proposal is designed to narrow participation by certain groups on an educational playing field where, in the name of `equality', fresh obstacles are to be raised against them.

In effect, it means that if you are unfortunate enough to have white parents who have degrees and good jobs, the university admissions process will be rigged against you. However well-qualified you may be, however hard you have worked and however good your exam grades, you stand to lose your chance of a university place to someone who can tick all the right boxes about their parents' circumstances.

This, we are told, is necessary to create a fairer society. Well, in that case why stop there? Clearly, there are many other unfair parental advantages that must now be ruthlessly excised from the system. We know, for example, that children do best educationally if their parents are married. So that's an unfair advantage over those from broken homes. We know that children who live in comfortable houses with lots of books and stimulation do better than those who don't enjoy such benefits. So we should discriminate against them too. And what about parents who have a particular talent - those who play the French horn, take part in chess tournaments or teach themselves Mandarin in their summer holidays? Or those who do not suffer from any physical or mental disability, or who are not in prison or are not alcoholics or drug addicts or child abusers? Surely their children have an unfair head-start too?

And why stop at parents? Why not also discriminate against those applicants whose grandparents went to university? Isn't such third generation advantage even worse? Clearly, in the interests of diversity and widening participation, the only people who should go to university are the black children of lone alcoholic mothers and fathers who are doing time for drug offences, and who were brought up by illiterate foster parents who sexually abused them in a mobile home up an isolated dirt track in Cumbria.

You think this is a joke? It is simply the logical outcome of this utterly indefensible process which would institutionalise rank injustice and prejudice. Universities should judge candidates on one thing alone - their academic potential. Instead, UCAS is telling them to judge their parents. The Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said the information on candidates' backgrounds would ensure that all applications were `genuinely dealt with on their merits', and that it would help universities assess who had the potential to succeed.

But the one thing this proposal is designed to do is to ensure candidates are not dealt with on their merits, but on the basis of their parents' background. And the more that background is likely to help such candidates succeed at university, the less likely it is that they will be offered a place.

It was once axiomatic that it was fundamentally unjust to hold someone's background against them - for such factors are totally beyond their control and irrelevant to their personal merit and achievements. Who would ever have thought that this argument would come full circle? Such oppressive behaviour is the signature of totalitarian or fundamentally unjust societies such as Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid-era South Africa, where those deemed to be enemies of the ruling class were disbarred from higher education.

Not only is it monumentally unfair, but it is also self-defeating. The whole point is supposedly to help people escape from disadvantage in order to succeed in life. But discriminating in this way against those who have succeeded is obviously a powerful disincentive to succeeding in the first place. Why, after all, would anyone want to get a university degree if the consequence is that their own children will find it much harder to get a university place? `Widening participation' in this bone-headed manner is actually the surest way of halting social mobility dead in its tracks.

The central fallacy is the claim that the reason for the persistently low take-up of university places by people from disadvantaged backgrounds is that the system is somehow loaded against them. In fact, this is the least likely cause.

In many cases, such people are merely making perfectly reasonable choices about what is in their own best interests. They don't want to go to university because, for a variety of reasons, they don't think it is right for them. But the Government believes that, since it sees a university education as an advantage, not having one can't possibly be a matter of free choice. It is a view which at root assumes that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are either powerless or too stupid to think for themselves - and also that there is only one way to think.

The result is social engineering and an outright abuse of education which has been going on for years. The truth is that the Government has progressively turned education inside out, in order to pack the universities with students who have been chosen not because they are suitable for such an education but to force 'socially excluded' young people in and advantaged young people out.

Instead of candidates meeting the requirements of the universities, admissions tutors have dropped their requirements to accommodate the poor levels of attainment of more and more candidates - with a knock-on effect of lowering standards throughout the examination and school systems. They are doing so, moreover, under the threat of losing funding unless they attract more students from working-class homes or state schools.

The results have been catastrophic. Between 2002 and 2005, the proportion of university entrants from state schools and the lowest social classes fell. Social mobility has actually gone backwards as a result of the collapse of educational standards across the board.

Once, education was the means of lifting young people out of disadvantaged backgrounds. Then it became a means of trapping them within those backgrounds. And now, those backgrounds are to be used to provide such young people with the illusion of academic 'success' by being turned into a weapon against the middle class which - along with an inverted racism - is being used as a scapegoat for the manifold failures of education policy. Clause Four socialism may have been consigned to history, but the old desire to reshape society through a vicious class war is still very much alive.


British doctor-training fiasco

The head of a controversial scheme for training doctors was ejected from office yesterday by the sheer weight of medical opinion. Professor Alan Crockard resigned as national director of Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) over the failure of the system for selecting junior doctors for training jobs. Critics say that the system is so unreliable that excellent doctors will be rejected and poor doctors appointed, damaging the quality of care and risking patients’ lives. Junior doctors and consultants have condemned the Medical Training and Application Service (MTAS) as unfair and incompetent. The recommendations of a review panel set up to rescue the process were rejected by junior doctors.

Professor Crockard has resigned with immediate effect. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, the Health Minister, said: “I would like to thank Alan for his enormous contribution to Modernising Medical Careers. “Alan’s work led to the successful establishment of the Foundation Programme for the early years of postgraduate medical training, which has been widely acknowledged to be a success. I appreciate that it has been a difficult time for junior doctors and would like to reassure them that we are listening to their concerns and working with their representatives to find a fair solution to this complex issue. “I would like to reconfirm our commitment to MMC which aims to recruit and train the best doctors to provide the best possible patient care.”

Professor Crockard, a neuro-surgeon, was recruited in 2004 to run MMC, a system for revamping medical training. This turned the old system upside down, replacing what amounted to an apprenticeship with a scheme designed to teach and measure competencies in all branches of medicine. While many doctors have doubts about MMC, believing that it is narrower and less flexible than the old scheme, it was the failures of the computer-based MTAS — a small part of the system — that brought Professor Crockard down. Last year, when the first doctors to be trained under MMC graduated, there was a huge row about the failures of the computer system to place them reliably into junior doctor posts, known in the MMC jargon as F1 and F2 posts.

But the problems were as nothing compared with those that occurred this year, when the task was to place junior doctors in training posts that would lead eventually to consultant positions. More than 30,000 were competing for 22,000 places. Success would put them on course to become consultants, failure could mean a blighted career. The computer could not cope with the volume of applications, limited the applications the junior doctors could make and failed to produce adequate shortlists for interviews. Many outstanding candidates failed to get any interviews in the first round because the application forms failed to recognise academic excellence adequately. Others were shortlisted despite not being qualified for the jobs.

The Department of Health appointed a panel to try to rescue the process, but its recommendations have not found favour with junior doctors. Dr Matthew Jamieson-Evans of Remedy UK, the body that organised mass medical protests in London and Glasgow over MTAS, said: “Resigning is the honorable thing for Professor Crockard to do. We bear no personal ill-will to him, but it is right that somebody should take responsibility. “This is only the first chapter. Very very few doctors are happy with the recommendations of the review panel.”


Kill that Alzheimer!

Or so the policy looks in Britain

Drugs commonly prescribed to people with Alzheimer’s disease are accelerating their deaths by an average of six months, a study has found. Up to 45 per cent of people with Alzheimer’s in nursing homes are given sedative drugs known as neuroleptics to try to control behavioural symptoms such as aggression. In severe cases, the drugs may be justified. But a five-year study by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust showed that, as well as reducing life expectancy, they were of no benefit to patients with mild symptoms and were associated with significant deterioration in verbal fluency and cognitive function.

Clive Ballard, professor of age-related disorders at King’s College London, who presented the findings at the charity’s conference in Edinburgh yesterday, said: “It is very clear that even over a six-month period of treatment there is no benefit of neuroleptics in treating the behaviour in people with Alzheimer’s disease when the symptoms are mild. “For people with more severe behavioural symptoms, balancing the potential benefits against increased mortality and other adverse events is more difficult, but this study provides an important evidence base to inform this decision-making process.”

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: “These results are deeply troubling and highlight the urgent need to develop better treatments. “Seven hundred thousand people are affected by dementia in the UK, a figure that will double in the next 30 years. The Government needs to make Alzheimer’s research funding a priority. Only 11 pound is spent on UK research into Alzheimer’s for every person affected by the disease, compared with 289 for cancer patients.”

The study examined 165 people with Alzheimer’s living in nursing homes in Oxford-shire, Newcastle upon Tyne, Edinburgh and London. They had been taking neuroleptic drugs for at least three months and took part in a trial in which some were taken off the drugs and others were not. The drugs involved were thioridazine (Melleril), chlorpromazine (Largactil), haloperidol (Serenace), trifluoperazine (Stelazine) and risperidone (Risperdal). Follow-ups in succeeding years showed striking differences in survival. After two years survival was 78 per cent in those taken off the drugs, and 55 per cent in those still on them. After three years the figures were 62 per cent against 35 per cent, and at 42 months 60 per cent against 25 per cent.

Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society , said: “Neuroleptics have been used as a dangerous fix for ‘challenging behaviour’ in people with dementia for too long. “These drugs have now been exposed as having no benefit for people with dementia, while causing a dramatic increase in the risk of death. It is a disturbing revelation that confirms some of our worst fears about neuroleptics, which have been the subject of numerous health warnings. “It is a national scandal that people are being sedated in this way. These drugs must be a last resort only used when all other methods have failed to alleviate the most distressing symptoms of dementia.”


No comments: