Monday, March 19, 2007

References, applications and such

This morning I wrote a reference for someone who wants to spend her gap year doing voluntary work. She has applied to two different organisations. The first sent me a booklet to fill in with 60 questions, many of them asking for the same information in slightly different ways and it took me more than two hours to complete. The second sent me a six page booklet about their work and four pages of A4 on what would be expected of the volunteer; it was tedious but at least it left me free to write what I thought would be an effective reference. Having sat on many an interviewing panel, I know which of the references is more likely to be read.

I wonder why it is that organisations, be they charities, universities or employers, have made application procedures so complex? It is hardly surprising that some young people feel under such pressure that they are driven to cheat by downloading advice from the internet. I read recently that 234 Oxbridge applicants plagiarised the same application form. Officials at both universities suspected foul play when one in twenty would-be medical students claimed their interest in science began when 'I accidentally burnt holes in my pyjamas after experimenting with a chemistry set on my eighth birthday.' I would have disqualified them not for cheating, but for showing so little imagination!

The government's latest idiotic scheme to try to ensure that disadvantaged youngsters get preferential treatment from university admissions officers can only make the situation worse. Starting in 2008, students will have to disclose their ethnicity and their parents' profession and qualifications on their application forms. There are probably people already designing helpful websites with euphemisms to disguise what might be seen as privileged backgrounds.

What constitutes privilege? The old grammar school system, coupled with generous university grants, ensured that any youngster with ability and determination could succeed in higher education. Almost all of my friends were, like me, the first of their family to go to university. If fewer children from poor (financially challenged!) backgrounds are going on to university today the government should look to itself for the causes: overcrowded comprehensive schools and crippling student debt. Rigging the entry system will not encourage more applications from this section of society. Let everyone apply on merit, knowing they will have financial support if they need it.

I've made some negative comments about Margaret Thatcher in recent posts but I must confess that I was one of those who voted her into power in the first place. She presented a very attractive and positive view of achievement through hard work. It was such a change from the years of dreary class jealousy and 'let's bring them down' attitude. She tried to import 'the American dream' principle to Britain and it worked for a lot of people. There were also many casualties and this government has to help them, but through support and encouragement, not social engineering.


  1. You've heard Brit's "American Dream" speech, haven't you?

    I personally think that college has been oversold as the solution to everyone's problems. There are many young people in America who go into outrageous debt to earn a degree from a prestigious university only to find out that they either can't find work in the profession that they chose or that it won't pay the sort of outsized salary that they expected.

    We have to set realistic expectations about what constitutes success. Society will always distribute itself in a bell shaped curve of accomplishment and prosperity, no matter how hard the governing class tries to engineer an egalitarian distribution of success. By pushing everyone into college we're just pushing the requirements for the advanced end of the curve out farther into advanced degrees. We should stop worrying about who gets the gold ring and provide sensible, affordable education and vocational training for all sections of the curve.

  2. I agree with you entirely that college has been oversold to a whole generation. Lots of youngsters who might have benefited for life from a trade apprenticeship or a vocational course have accrued massive debts in order to achieve a worthless degree in media studies or hospitality - we call them 'Mickey Mouse' degrees. The sad (I daren't say ironic!) thing is that they would earn a great deal more if they were plumbers, builders or electricians.


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