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Are Students Middle Class Wankers?

Editorial - 01 February 2003

"Pupils that achieve the gold standard of good A levels deserve to go to university"

That was Chris Woodhead last week on Newsnight. He does not want the hard working middle class student to be cheated by the postcode lottery. But every university admissions tutor knows that, when A level grades are equal, a middle class student, having the benefit of an education geared to exam success, will (on average) do less well than a student from the underclasses.

So why not choose students that are likely to get the best degrees? Shall we send the worthy, rather than the clever to university?

Update 02mar2003: The Independent has a story Personality tests for would-be students

A spokesman from Bristol University, which has been accused of discriminating against pupils from fee-paying schools, said the university would do all it can to widen participation. " We have no policy of positive discrimination. It is our policy to identify academic potential and we think that potential exists everywhere and it is our duty to seek it out."
He said that pupils from schools that performed badly at A-level who had predictions of less than straight As would be admitted. Evidence suggests they are more likely gain first-class degrees than private school counterparts with straight As for A-level.

See also The Observer which has a story Students face personality tests for university places

However research within Bristol's physics department shows teenagers given low offers gain at least as good a degree as fee-payers with straight As...
'There is no possibility of the university lowering its academic standards or carrying out social engineering or dumbing down to dance to the Government's tune,' said Barry Taylor, Bristol's Communications Director. 'But we do at least give people credit if they have triumphed over educational adversity.'

Update 06mar2003: The Telegraph has a story Universities told not to rely just on A-levels. They quote Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary

"A-levels are an important guide to educational achievement but they are not a perfect test of everything," he said.
"I'm not saying 'here's a model', but other indicators of merit and ability are essays, interviews and the Scholastic Aptitude Test used by American universities. Those are the sort of things we need to look at."
This article also reports that Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council as saying that the high A-level grades obtained by pupils at independent schools did not necessarily indicate they would do better at university than their peers who obtained lower grades at state school.

See also The Guardian which has a story Clarke attacks Bristol boycott. It too reports Sir Howard Newby

He told MPs that independent schools were good at getting high A-level grades for their pupils, but that did not necessarily mean those young people would do better at university than their state school peers: "When they come through to university, it is not always the better coached student that performs better."

The children of the middle class go to university

In "Does Education Matter?", Alison Wolf says

"No matter whether you look at the United Kingdom or the United States, at France, at Germany, Japan or New Zealand, the picture is the same. The children of the middle classes now go on to higher education almost automatically. The issue is not whether, but merely where. Meanwhile, children from poor and unskilled backgrounds only trickle in. And, while the absolute chances of entry, and absolute numbers, may have improved for families at the bottom of the heap, on some measures the gap in opportunity has actually widened."


Click on a link or scroll directly to an article.

Photojournalism - learnt on the job
A journalist? Only if you marry the editor's daughter.
Thirst for beer greater than the thirst for knowledge.
Too many wooly theories.
Most undergraduates are dead wood
The social skills of a caterpillar
Too posh to do a proper job?
IT Managers: Never hire the graduate
Handwriting style affects exam results
A slow writer disadvantaged
Fast writers, with first class degrees.
"IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance"
"You can teach a turkey to climb a tree..."
"but it's easier to hire a squirrel."
From the leafy suburbs: Straight A's but dim.
No straight-'A's-but-dim here.
Student Admissions in California
Students learn then forget
Memory, IQ and Exam Performance
Selection for social work training.
Good memory, but no problem solver?
Exams and leafy suburbs
My Degree: 3 weeks work, 87 drunk
Graduates and dropouts
Degrees or Psychometrics?
Better coaching - worse results?
The Empire Strikes Back
Credentialism at the BEEB
Universities are not that academic
Out of the working class and into debt. Degrees don't count. David Ward Maclean's Despair.



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04sep03a: Doug McKinley: Photojournalism learnt on the job - The academic world and the real world.

I am a successful photo journalist. I work for national newspapers, magazines and have many other commissions. I travel the world regularly. I have not been trained at college. I was trained on the job.

In 1981 I was hitching from Vancouver to Nicaragua. I got there a year after the Sandinista revolution. I have been taking pictures since I was eight years old and had my equipment with me in Nicaragua.

In Canada I worked as a carpenter to finance my trip. In Nicaragua I met a man from a picture agency and started working as a stringer for him. He taught me trade of photojournalism. He had forgotten more than I will ever know. Twenty years later I still believe this.

Over the years I have done a two or three courses on some technical aspects of photography to give me background information but the real leaning process was shooting hundreds of thousands of pictures on the job - learning by my mistakes.

Over the years I have obtained two major qualifications: a degree in political science and a diploma in journalism. I got these purely for credibility. I enjoyed some of the courses but often, while taking pictures round the world and working as a carpenter, I would go to lectures and seminars to find pompous academics trying to teach when they had no concept or understanding of what the real world was like.

They had plenty of theory but no understanding. I worked in El Salvador, off and on, for several years, seeing all sorts of atrocities (eg. people killed with their genitals cut off and stuffed in their mouths or their throat cut with their tongues pulled out through the cut.)

The academics, who thought they knew how the world works, knew little of this. There were a few that I could relate to. These would be the more relaxed type, who enjoyed teaching as well as the research they were doing. But 80% of the professors were pompous dicks.

I could only speak to a small minority of the academics. Here I was, experiencing important historical events, and few academics were interested in hearing of my experience, mainly, I think, because I was a student with insufficient status.

I don't regret my time at college. I did learn allot, having to do lots of reading. But one of the things I learnt was that many academics have their heads up their arses. They live in a completely different fucking world.

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11mar03a: Found on the web: Student Admissions in California

Faxfn has been sent an interesting article War on the SAT in The American Prospect.

This reports a different approach for selecting students for university courses in the US, where school grades and SAT tests are used routinely. SAT tests (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) are successors to intelligence tests, which were designed to be a measure of aptitude not of learning or cultural background. SAT tests have been recently discussed as solution to the UK's selection problem now that A-levels alone are not regarded as a gold standard.

But University of California President Richard Atkinson feels that the current SAT tests add little information to what other tests and grades show about a student's academic capabilities. "If you know the definition of those words," he said, "the reasoning is trivial."

At the same time, it discriminates against poor and minority students, and distracts attention from the core academic subjects that high-school students should focus on. "If you know the definition of those words," he said, "the reasoning is trivial."

In a piece for the Sacramento Bee, UC takes a look at SAT I's worth which can be found on the University of California office of the President website here. Richard Atkinson says

California has made significant strides in the last few years by establishing clear guidelines for K-12 school curriculums, setting high academic standards and employing standardized tests to assess student achievements. Yet for all these reforms, the admissions process at the University of California and other universities across the nation still puts great emphasis on the SAT I, the Standardized Assessment Test, aligned neither to standards nor school curriculums.

Simple fairness tells me this is wrong. We are, after all, a society built on twin notions: first, that actual achievement should be what matters most; and second, that people should be judged on the basis of what they have made of the opportunities available to them. Therefore, it seems only right that college-bound students should be judged on what they have accomplished during four years of high school, not on the basis of a single standardized exam designed to test undefined notions of "aptitude." For those reasons, I am recommending to the faculty that the SAT I no longer be required for students applying to UC.

But he approaches the postcode issue in a different way to Chris Woodhead and Alan Smithers.

But changing standardized test requirements is only a first step. We should also adopt a more comprehensive, "holistic" admissions process that takes a range of factors into consideration, from the quality of a student's high school to the opportunities available to that student. A young person who has made exceptional progress in challenging circumstances needs to be given special attention.

The American Prospect article reports a radical new idea that the top few percent of pupils from each high school should be admitted to university.

Atkinson says that UC's policy of admitting the top 4 percent of the seniors from each high school, the first of his admissions reforms to go into effect, has been a resounding success. Last year it prompted an 8 percent jump in the applicant pool, of which a significant percentage are black or Hispanic, many from high schools that had rarely sent students to UC before. In its first year, roughly 80 percent of the graduates in the top 4 percent of their high schools applied.

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20feb03a: Postgraduate on the coach : Most undergraduates are dead wood.
Disappointed by university

I was very disappointed when I got to university. My parents had enthused about their education. The atmosphere they described was one where everybody, students and lecturers, were passionate about their subjects (Interruption from the seat behind: before the Thomas Gradgrinds got hold of it all.) And it was not just an enthusiasm for their particular subjects: They swapped ideas with students from other disciplines.

Hardly anyone interested

But hardly anyone on my course, Mathematics, was genuinely interested in maths - or at least were prepared to show that they were. Students wanted to be given a set of notes to get them through an exam with as little effort as possible. I could see how frustrating it was to the lecturers. Those that tried to teach students to think for themselves got slated in the course appraisals given by students at the end of the course.

Lecturers despair

Now I am a postgraduate I can talk to those lecturers and they seem to be in despair. They are helpless. The university is now run by form fillers aiming for mechanical targets. The idea seems to be to spoon feed the students so that the department can meet uniform but superficial standards required by the system.

No room for inspiration

Undergraduate courses have no room for inspirational mathematics. I respect the lecturers in my department who try so hard fight the system and encourage individual mathematical thought. But they are fighting the government and the hordes of students that are simply at university because society believes it's best for most people to go to university. In fact, the only people that really gain are those who wanted to go to university because they had the drive to understand.

New ideas not allowed

The dead wood of the time servers, not only held back the few inspired students but because they were exam focussed they created an atmosphere that restricts creativity and ingenuity. After all, trying a new idea is taking a risk - a risk that it may not be wise to take when there is only really time to learn by rote.

Enquiry by argument and discussion - at last

When I was doing A levels we had a small class (6 or 7 pupils). We ended nearly every lesson arguing over some mathematical point. As an undergraduate I never experienced any such heated discussions. Now I am a research student, this enquiry by argument and discussion has finally resurfaced.

An appetite for knowledge

There has been much talk of increasing the number of people attending university. But most people are not suited to attending university. This is not simply a function of academic ability as measured by the exam machine. Suitability strongly depends on a willingness to make the effort to learn and an appetite for knowledge.

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20mar98: Roger Hind: Graduates with the social skills of a caterpillar.

The view from small business.

I have employed many college, university and TEC graduates and have found that they are generally institutionalised, overeducated, one-dimensional characters who for the main part have a chip on their shoulders because they feel as graduates they should automatically be placed at a management level. However, in reality, this is rarely the case.

How, as an employer, can we employ a student whose only knowledge of his or her chosen career is theory based with the exception of a 2 week placement in a remotely related field.

The students are taught by desk bound individuals whose knowledge is also theory based who have dipped their toe into the workplace only to decide it was actually hard work and actually they knew nothing and in a state of panic returned to the bosom of the education system to become tutors and lecturers.

How can industry take these people as serious candidates for management posts. Many of them have been institutionalised by being in education until they are 19, 20 or 21 and have the social skills of a caterpillar. Can they manage an iron on a uniform? Can they manage to stand close to the razor? All they seem to be able to manage is to go home.

Theoretical knowledge is only of any use when proportionately integrated with practical application. We do not need socially maladjusted 19-21 year olds, we need motivated school leavers, who are on the job trained and who are backed up with current and forward thinking theoretical knowledge.

I have few qualifications: 3 CSEs. I never bothered with exams at school because I new I was going into the army. Qualifications have never been a problem to me. I have simply lied about them when applying for a job. I have been offered every job I have ever applied for.

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24jan99: Andy Eadie: Too posh to do a proper job?

I am the proprietor of a small business with ten employees. I have worked in the building industry for seventeen years and it has given me a good living. But nobody seems to want to learn a trade anymore.

I know the age of technology is here and manual work is less appealing than being sat at a computer but surely anyone that wants to do well in the construction industry must be better off getting a trade first and some hands-on experience.

The days of "get a trade and you'll be alright lad" may have gone (as a result of the status-consciousness amongst educators rejecting "working class" employment) but I think education is now geared to encourage students to go on to become graduates and keep out of employment as long as they can.

The game now seems to be to do your A-levels, do a degree, then a management course, then maybe a year out and then maybe (just maybe) try to find a job. But as far as I'm concerned twenty years of full-time education and a year of smoking pot in India are not good enough qualifications for a manager's job. (I know a pub where such people are waiting for their first 30K job to come along!)

Surely somebody who studies at the same time as doing a full-time job on the shop floor is better qualified by their mid-twenties. They may not be as academically qualified on paper but they will have a wealth of experience. These people can then go on to promotion or start their own business, doing further studying as required. This is the type of education we need: One that concentrates on the on-the-job learning for office juniors and apprentices instead of years out and fast-tracking.

If we do carry on with our present system of pushing as many as possible through "higher education", we have a society of "educated" people who are qualified for jobs that do not exist.

At the age of 33, I am considered to be young in the building trade because, since the mid 80's no major employers have taken on apprentices. The days of employers recruiting from schools have gone. It is now only a question of time before there is a major shortage in the construction industry.

I have tried to employ people but it is virtually impossible to find good tradesmen. This will only get worse as young people don't want to work in the building trade. It will probably only dawn on the general public when they start being charged exorbitant prices for the simplest of jobs. Then they will realise that even the cowboys can name their own price. Finding an honest tradesman will be a lifelong search.

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25mar99: Ben Daglish: Golden rule for IT managers: "Never hire the graduate."

I'm lucky enough to be part of the 'lost boys' - the children who got the first generation microcomputers in their Christmas stockings. Once Uncle Clive had shown us the way with the ZX80, and before the market polarised into Playstations for the kids and PC's for the moms and dads, we were the proud owners of these marvellous machines - VIC 20s, Spectrums, Dragons, MSX's, et al. - that were just designed to be big programmable calculators that plugged into the television. You could play games, run spreadsheets, the whole caboodle - but the point was that you HAD to know exactly what the machine was doing in order to operate the damm thing at all. And if you wanted it to do anything other than run the five examples that came with the box, you had to program it yourself.

Suddenly magazines full of BASIC listings came flooding onto the market, and a new breed of programmer was born - the hacker. The country was full of 12 year olds in their bedrooms writing assembly code, dissasembling ROMs and doing things with the machine that the manufacturers thought were impossible. Up until this point (approx 1980), computer programmers were maths graduates who got to actually touch a terminal only after ten years of training. Computers were million-dollar boxes that were to be treated with respect.

While in the fourth year, I formed a company with a few friends and a teacher, and we started writing educational software. Afer sixth form, I went off to University to study computing. I lasted a year. Not only was the standard of programming primitive compared to the standard of the software we had been writing, but I realised that I had probably written more programs in 4 years at school than any of the lecturers had in their lives - and I owned my own computer, rather than a timeshare teminal.

So I left and joined the games industry, which was chock full of people like me. The sad thing is that 15 years later, those lecturers are still there, up and down the country. Of course they have progressed, but unfortunately the IT revolution has progressed faster. One of my golden rules, and certainly one that still holds true for many IT managers, is "Never hire the graduate". Three years away from the real world gives one a handicap that is very difficult to overcome. Not only that, but the additional handicap of 'computing' being adopted as part of the mainstream school curriculum means that todays 'creme-de-la-creme' are leaving campus not knowing how many bits are in a byte. Just think. Who imparted the 'necessary information' to the school teachers about what should be in the National Curriculum Computer Studies?

There actually was an 'A' level computer studies course at our local college when I was in the sixth form. I took the exam without going to any of the lessons, and got an 'A'. It was a joke - questions about hardware that was already extinct and programming problems that could have been solved by a chimpanzee. (In fact, I subsequently wrote a letter of complaint to the examining board. One of the requirements of the exam was to use a GOTO statement - a practice frowned upon by the cogniscenti.) The point is I, and everybody who owned one of the mighty micros, had learnt the subject by ourselves. We knew who George Boole was, because we had to know how to perform Boolean algebra just to try to fit "Death Invaders" into 16K.

Nowadays though, George is up there with William the Conqueror and Samuel Pepys - just another boring Dead White Male that the teachers drone on about. Boolean algebra is something you get lectures on in stuffy schoolrooms while you'd rather be outside playing football. And whereas my mighty micro used to boot up in 2 seconds and be READY>, Bill's machines take 3 minutes to boot and a degree in Computer Science to operate. Now that's progress.

faxfn Note 1: Ben Daglish was one of the early staff at Gremlin Graphics - a company which specialised in computer games started in Sheffield some ten years ago. It was recently reported as being sold for just over 22m.

faxfn Note 2: Computer Weekly has run several pieces on IT graduates. The issue of 18th March 1999 has three articles on its front page about the "serious mismatch between the skills taught to IT graduates in universities and the skills business needs". The Alliance for Information System Skills is reported as saying "IT graduates are not getting into IT jobs and non-IT graduates are".

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03apr99: Computer Consultant: A slower writer wins too (eventually)

This computer consultant kindly agreed to do the Mary Lamb test (see above) for faxfn. He obtained the following times: 43.6 sec, 44.4 sec and 44 sec. According to the classification given above this puts him in the extremely slow category.

In the summer of 1976 he passed his Physics O-level (grade C) but failed English Language with the worst classification ('U' for unclassified). In 1976 he passed two further O-levels (Maths and Technical Drawing) but failed English Language and English Literature. He was awarded a CSE grade 3 in English Language.

On leaving school, he became a trainee aircraft technician with the RAF. During six years service he 'learnt a bit' including some data analysis. Following his time in the RAF, he attended technical college and obtained an ONC (with distinction) in Computer Studies. Results were awarded mostly by course work so writing speed was no problem.

This was followed by 4 years programming (COBAL, Basic, C etc) followed by a one year HNC course where in most of the topics he got merits. After another five years of writing software (and becoming a company director) he returned to education to do an MSc in Information Processing. This was not so successful: he scraped a pass. But the course did have several time limited exams that were the main means of assessment.

Since then he has worked for 4 years as a consultant/developer and clearly is a man of significant skill and talent. But still has no O-level in English.

His final comment was "I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to carry on with an education. Careers guidance at school had me stitched up as a tyre fitter."

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11oct99a: Find the reference: Handwriting style affects exam results.

Faxfn has been told of a paper published in the 1960's or 70's, possibly from someone at the Open University about writing style and examination performance.

The research took ten different answers to a hypothetical examination and wrote each of them in ten different handwriting styles. A panel of teachers were asked to mark the exam answers. They all had the one set of answers (i.e. copies of the original ten) but written in a different combinations of handwriting style. None of the panel knew the purpose of the project.

Analysis of the marks given showed that it was a significant advantage to have a certain style of writing that looked "adult". Surprisingly writing that was too neat was penalised as was (less surprisingly) scruffy writing.

Faxfn would like a reference to this work.

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11oct99b: Faxfn Test Dept: Fast writers, with first class degrees.

Recent testing of Mary Lamb speeds. 19 seconds is the fastest ever tested.

Date of test  Degree ML Time 
28sep991st Class in Physics (Oxon) 25 sec
29sep991st Class in Law 19 sec*
08oct991st Class in Economics (Oxon) 19 sec

* Geoff Kendall. He has indistinct but intelligent looking writing. He misses out many of the squiggles forming individual letters. But in examinations he printed and underlined key words, presumably to give the maximum effect for speed reading examiners.

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23oct99a: Faxfn Test Dept: Three more tests. (the control?)

Having tested three people with first class degrees, faxfn staff did a random walk to a local shop. We found 3 young women: a schoolgirl doing A-levels, her aunt who is an undergraduate and their friend who is a deputy manager in a medium sized branch of a national chain of shops.

The schoolgirl had slow writing (a ML time of 30 sec), the undergraduate had standard speed writing (ML 27) and the deputy manager had very slow writing (ML 38). The deputy manager also thought that "exam panic" had been part of her problem.

These three writing speeds of "random walk" selected people (ML 27, 30, 38) are slower than the writing speeds of the three people selected for their first class degrees (ML 19, 19 and 25).

For the record the schoolgirl had 10 GCSEs grades ranging from B to E (the lowest grade of pass was F); the undergraduate had five A-levels grades ranging from B to D and the deputy manager's exam results had been poor (a few low grade GCSEs and O-levels). After school the deputy manager briefly trained as a nurse but dropped out. However, when the national chain was recruiting, she got past the initial rejection by her enthusiasm and persistence. Starting as a Retail Sales 1 she was promoted up several levels to Deputy Manager (Sales) in just over a year.

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19aug99: Recommended Reading: "IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance"

This headline from a well-known broadsheet exaggerates the findings of the research reported in "Memory, IQ and Exam Performance" (by John Wilding, Elizabeth Valentine, Peter Marshall and Susan Cook. Educational Psychology, Vol 19, No 2, 1999). But a fuller quote still shows an interesting story:

"In combination, therefore, the two studies support the existence of a general memory ability, independent of IQ, and indicate that this ability accounts for between 10 and 20% of the variance in exam performance. Surprisingly Cattel IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance in either group. There was of course a large difference in both GCSE performance and Cattel IQ between the groups, but the multiple differences between them make it unwise to ascribe the differences in GCSE performance solely to Cattel IQ."

(More later)

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22aug99: Competencies or MBAs?: "You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it's easier to hire a squirrel."

An interesting booklet published by Hay/McBer Research Press in 1994 has come the notice of faxfn. "Competency Assessment Methods" by Lyle Spencer, David McClelland and Singe Spencer. Quotes:

"... an increasing number of studies were published which showed that traditional aptitude and knowledge content tests, as well as school grades and credentials:

1. did not predict job performance or success in life (see McClelland, 1973, for a review of this literature); and

2. were often biased against minorities, women, and persons from lower socioeconomic strata (Fallows 1985)."


"While changing motives and traits is possible (McClelland and Winter, 1971), the process is lengthy, expensive and difficult. From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the rule is 'hire for core motivation and trait characteristics, and develop knowledge and skills.' Most organisations do the reverse: they hire on the basis of educational credentials (MBAs from good schools) and assume the candidates can be indoctrinated with the appropriate motives and traits... in the words of one personnel manager, 'You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it's easier to hire a squirrel.'"

You may like to order your copy from Hay/McBurr Research Press, 0207 730 0833.

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24jul99a: Academic A: They learn then forget

(This academic teaches business studies to undergraduates and also teaches on an amber accredited MBA course.)

... [Undergraduates] may have passed exams but what are we testing? It's just regurgitation. They learn it six weeks before the exam and forget it afterwards. And they will end up doing jobs for which the course has no relevance...

(See in full Undergraduates lack initiative)

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05sep99: Elizabeth Valentine: "Memory, IQ and Exam Performance" - a summary


John Wilding and Elizabeth Valentine
Royal Holloway, University of London
Educational Psychology, vol.19, no.2, 1999, pp.117-132.

My summary:

Relations between memory ability, intelligence (IQ) and GCSE performance were examined in two groups of 16-17 year-olds of above average intelligence, one consisting of members of Mensa. Memory (immediate and delayed, i.e. after a week) was tested on a wide range of materials (including faces, a story, a complex visual figure, words and numbers) and by self-rating. Intelligence was measured using the Cattell Culture Fair Test.

Evidence was obtained for a general memory factor independent of intelligence, in that rank orderings of performance were similar across the range of memory tasks and correlated with self-reported memory ability, with differences in IQ removed. Measures of memory ability were significantly related to GCSE performance whereas IQ was not. This suggests that GCSE require the reproduction of learned information rather than ability to solve novel problems. Self-rated memory performance was the only significant independent predictor of exam performance, indicating that other factors such as motivation, application, study skills and home background contribute substantially to exam success, once a certain degree of intelligence is reached.

Excerpts from the Article:

Abstract: Two studies explored individual differences in general memory ability and their relation to performance in a public examination taken at age 15-16 years in England and Wales. Five memory tasks were used to test both immediate memory and retention a week later. Rank orders of performance across the memory tasks, with IQ partialled out, were found to be significantly related, suggesting some general process. Separate indices of general memory ability for the immediate and delayed tests were highly correlated with each other and also with self-ratings of memory ability. Multiple regression revealed that self-rating of memory ability was the only significant independent predictor of examination performance. The results suggest that individual differences in memory ability account for between 10 and 20% of the variance in the performance in groups of above-average IQ. Possible reasons for the importance of memory in this context and implications for instructional methods are discussed.

Page 124:

The first study 'produced some evidence for a single underlying memory ability operating across a range of tasks. Which is independent of non-verbal IQ as measured by the Cattell Culture Fair Test...'

'Somewhat surprisingly, Cattell IQ was not significantly related to GCSE performance, but the three memory indices were. However, nearly 90% of the variance in examination performance remained unaccounted for, implying that factors such as motivation, application, study methods and home background are the main determinants of performance at this examination.'

Page 129:

'Both studies supported the existence of some general underlying memory factor on which individuals differ, demonstrated by agreement in the rankings over the five tasks...'

'All three memory measures (self-rating, immediate total memory and delayed total memory) were significantly related to GCSE performance. Multiple regression indicated in both studies that the only independent significant predictor was self-rating of memory ability.'

'The two studies support the existence of a general memory ability, independent of IQ, and indicate that this ability accounts for between 10 and 20% of the variance in GCSE performance. Surprisingly, Cattell IQ did not contribute to GCSE performance in either group.'

'One possible explanation is that the primary demands of this particular examination are to reproduce learned information rather that to solve novel problems. It may therefore be the case that once some threshold level of intelligence is exceeded, other factors such as motivation, study strategies and memory ability become the main determination of performance.'

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23oct99b: Faxfn to Roger Greeff, Sheffield Hallam University: Selection for social work training.

Faxfn would like to ask you about the selection of students for courses on social work.

One of the criticisms made about nurse training is that initial selection process is increasingly based on "academic" qualifications and this does not necessarily measure the "competencies" required necessary for nursing.

You can see several entries in this section, which pose questions about the use of exams in selection. I understand that you also interview applicants to your courses but do not use any more formal competency assessment methods such as those mentioned in Spencer, Lyle and Spencer (see above).

These are our questions on student selection:
  • Can competency assessment methods help?
  • How useful are standard exams?
  • How useful are interviews?
  • Has any research been done?

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27oct99a: Faxfn to Elizabeth Valentine: Good memory, but no problem solver?

Thank you for your helping us with your interesting contribution.

We thought you might be able to answer a question prompted by your research: What relationship exists between "memory power" and "problem solving ability"?

A reader has suggested that, in his experience, there is at best a poor correlation between academic ability (measured by class of degree) and the ability to solve problems on the job. Has there been any research done that might throw light on this?

He also speculated that a good memory may be detrimental to problem solving because it encourages a "rote learning" mind set (i.e. Inappropriate stock solutions are remembered rather than new problems solved). Is this remotely possible?

Would this account for the claim made in the 1970s that the requirement that research students have good degrees meant that half the outstanding researchers were missed. Do you know anything about this too? We were told it concerned students that had an alternative entry to an American college (possibly Harvard).

Answers from Elizabeth Valentine:

> We thought you might be able to answer a question prompted by
> your research: What relationship exists between "memory power"
> and "problem solving ability"?

I suspect that no simple relationship exists between 'memory power' (whatever that is) and 'problem solving ability' (what kind of problems?) A good SHORT-term or 'working memory' would be an asset for problem because this would enables you to hold information in temporary storage while working on it.

The nature of the 'memory power' might determine whether or not a good long-term memory was a help or a hindrance in problem solving. If it was a 'rote' sort, based on mnemonic techniques where the focus was on superficial non-meaningful aspects of the material, then, as your correspondent suggested, this might be deleterious. On the other hand, if the superior memory was of the sort cultivated by the mathematician Aitken who tried to keep his mind limpid so as to absorb material and sought MEANINGFUL relationships in material, then this might well be an advantage in having a rich domain of associations on which to draw.

> A reader has suggested that, in his experience, there is at
> best a poor correlation between academic ability (measured
> by class of degree) and the ability to solve problems on the
> job. Has there been any research done that might throw light
> on this?

This wouldn't surprise me as obviously many other ingredients such as motivation and political nous come into 'real-life' practical success. The only specific piece of research I know about is that which demonstrated a poor relation between remembering verbal material and remembering to do things.

> He also speculated that a good memory may be detrimental
> to problem solving because it encourages a "rote learning"
> mind set ...

Now, don't ask me any more questions or I'll be tempted to spend time answering them!

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27oct99b: Faxfn to Professor Smithers: Exams and leafy suburbs

The Daily Telegraph has just reported
"UNIVERSITIES are to recruit students by postcode under a new system in which preferential treatment will be given to applicants from poorer backgrounds."

"Alan Smithers, the professor of education at Liverpool University, condemned the move, saying: "There is an obvious danger that bright students with affluent parents will be discriminated against unfairly. Admission to higher education should be on the basis of ability, not quotas."
Rising from this and other issues on faxfn we would like to ask:
  • Can "exam technique" be taught?

  • How well is "academic ability" measured by the exams for university entrance? (You will see the notes above questions on exams and writing speed, writing style, memory, exam panic etc.)

  • Has "academic ability" a strong relationship with the co-operative problem solving said to be required in many modern knowledge-based industries? (cf. "They learn some from highly paid professors who now teach a way of writing that sounds clever whatever you are actually saying." posted elsewhere on faxfn.)

  • Has much research been done to look at demographic groups by their educational characteristics? You may also recall the report by John Clare, the Telegraph's Education Editor, "'Leafy suburbs' dominate places at universities". Clearly there is a strong postcode effect in university recruitment. And demographic clustering of postcodes does show groupings of residential neighbourhoods where significantly different types of people live. (eg "Urban venturers", "Country Dwellers" or "The Hard Pressed".) You may still have colleagues at the University of Liverpool that have worked extensively on these systems.

  • Finally, is proficiency in "exam technique" related to postcodes?

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19nov99b: Katherine Sparks: My Degree: 3 weeks work, 87 weeks drunk.

First I would like to say I am neither boasting about my performance at University or ashamed of it. It is just a fact that I achieved a degree by cramming for three weeks before my finals. Admittedly, a good short term memory plus very fast reading ability may have been an advantage, but I firmly believe a degree does not require three years protracted study. Especially in the field of Social Administration where so much of the whole course is geared around a reading list of about eight to ten "Bibles".

I did begin University with noble intentions of churning out every essay on schedule, spending every afternoon studying in the library, wearing cricket jumpers in university colours, embracing the cultural opportunities at an elite establishment, and finally graduating in the top ten of the year to loud applause. Sadly, ideals were soon compromised (on the first night at the Union bar - a binge which lasted seven days).

I revised my goals to three afternoons spent in the library and essays only matter of days late. This degenerated further and further until my whole day turned topsy turvey and I was arising at 4pm to watch Neighbours and proceed to the nearest bar and club etc. ending at around 6am. I soldiered bravely on, with no encouragement from anybody I may add, to finally graduating with a lower 2nd Class degree - such a grade well deserved you may say but I would like to add that in the entire year exactly half graduated with 2:1 and the remaining half graduated with 2:2. So I was no worse off than 50% of the serious minded studious graduates. So who was right? I had a bloody good three years and graduated with the minimum of effort and my degree had proved a vital and useful tool to further my career.

A valuable lesson I learnt from my degree was that it was possible to make the minimum of effort to achieve the maximum result.

Since graduating I have been employed by a prestigious and massive multiple retailer who held me in the highest esteem for my hard working and enthusiastic commitment. For the past five years I have run my own business which is very busy, popular and a credit to me.

I have always had a very strong work ethic, but have been disinterested in the academic and I firmly believe that educational qualifications should not be the main yardstick by which people are measured. If you can cut corners academically to reach the same goal this should always be done. I also believe that academic cheating is a good thing ( if you can get away with it) because it gets you through the educational process to areas of life and work where you can really prove your worth to an employer having overcome the "academic results" stumbling block.

Degrees are not a good measure of employability. Many graduates with "bad" degrees are excellent in the job situation and employers that stick rigidly to a "1st or 2:1 only" rule miss out on brilliant opportunities.

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07dec99a: Faxfn to Professor Smithers (2): Graduates and dropouts

The Independent reports (27th November 1999):
Dropout rates at some universities are an astounding 40 per cent, according to figures to be published next week which herald the first official league tables for higher education.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, was worried about taxpayers' money going down the drain. "I am startled that so many people who have gained entry are leaving in such a short period of time," he said. "It may not be good value for money for universities to be open to everyone if you then have 40 per cent of them leaving. This is worthy of systematic inquiry."
Faxfn asks:

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08dec99a: John Oxley: Ask Smithers: "Degrees or Psychometrics?"

Dear Faxfn

I saw your open letter to Prof Smithers. Surely you could have made your point more succinctly. Take a quote from the paper on one type of psychometric test you mention elsewhere "Competency Assessment Methods" (Lyle Spencer et al.):

... an increasing number of studies were published which showed that traditional academic and knowledge content tests, as well as school grades and credentials:
  1. did not predict job performance or success in life (see McClelland, 1973, for a review of the literature); and
  2. were often biased against minorities, women, and persons from lower socioeconomic strata (Fallows, 1985).

A quick internet search shows the good professor does not seem to regard psychometric tests with favour:

Professor Alan Smithers at the University of Liverpool's Centre for Education and Employment Research regards the tests like astrology.

"They can be a very useful starting point for a discussion and might draw young people's attention to careers they had not thought of before. But the danger is that people limit their ambitions as a result. Tests might be a useful guide, but there is a greater variety to human talents and creativity." (The Independent, 15th November 1999)
Perhaps Lyle Spencer might say degree results are like astrology too. Can Professor Smithers show us the research which shows degrees give employers the gold standard they want?

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08mar03a: Higher Education Funding Council: "It is not always the better coached student that performs better."

On 06mar2003 The Telegraph had a story Universities told not to rely just on A-levels. They quote Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary

"A-levels are an important guide to educational achievement but they are not a perfect test of everything," he said.

"I'm not saying 'here's a model', but other indicators of merit and ability are essays, interviews and the Scholastic Aptitude Test used by American universities. Those are the sort of things we need to look at."
This article also reports that Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council as saying that the high A-level grades obtained by pupils at independent schools did not necessarily indicate they would do better at university than their peers who obtained lower grades at state school.

See also The Guardian on the same day which has a story Clarke attacks Bristol boycott. It too reports Sir Howard Newby

He told MPs that independent schools were good at getting high A-level grades for their pupils, but that did not necessarily mean those young people would do better at university than their state school peers: "When they come through to university, it is not always the better coached student that performs better."

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09mar03a: The Empire Strikes Back: Most degrees are good investments

In Evidence and Education in our Education and Training Section there is a quote from Alison Wolf's book "Does Education Matter"

...we cannot conclude ... that the skills that employers are actually using and looking for are indeed the ones gained late in the day. The most valuable could have been acquired much earlier - by age fourteen, sixteen or eighteen - and we have seen strong suggestions that this may indeed be the case.

In contrast to this, research published by the UK National Statistics in Labour Market Trends does show graduates get, on average, good value for their investment in education but that for some types of degree, especially arts degrees, there is a negative rate of return.

On 07mar2003 The Independent had a story School leavers with two A-levels earn more than arts graduates which reported this.

Graduates of arts courses would be better off if they had quit full-time education after A-levels rather than studied for a degree, research published yesterday indicates.

"Feeling warm about literature doesn't pay the rent," Professor Walker [of the University of Warwick]said. "Maybe an average arts student knows he or she is not going to do very well. Maybe they do not. Education is a risk individuals take. We need to make sure people have the correct perceptions."
But the general conclusion of the research is this:
There are large average returns to education. There is a significant variance in returns across individuals. There is no evidence that the recent expansion in higher education has resulted in the financial returns falling implying that the expansion in supply is just keeping up with growing demand. The effect of education on wages actually does work via higher productivity. However, while it has been shown that the private returns to education are large this is not enough to answer the question of the extent to which this education should, or should not, be subsidised.
(Our emphasis.)

The authors, Ian Walker of the University of Warwick and Yu Zhu of the University of Kent, base their conclusion on the fact that when the school leaving age was raised in 1973, only a few extra pupils stayed on at school past the increased minimum leaving date. They consider two explanations of the relationship between earning and education:

To investigate this important issue it is necessary to look at it in a roundabout way. If people choose education in order to distinguish themselves from others then, if a low productivity group were to raise its education for some policy induced reason, the more productive would also want to invest in more education in order to continue to distinguish themselves from the less productive. On the other hand, if education simply makes people more productive then educating one group more has no effect on the decisions of others.
The authors argue that because few extra pupils stayed on after the extra compulsory year, they are not choosing education in order to distinguish themselves from others (i.e. fight off the competition for jobs). This gives weight to the only alternative - that education simply makes people more productive.

What is not clear from the paper is to what extent the authors reject the hypothesis that employers pay wages according to the qualifications of their employees in the (mistaken) belief that these are a good guide to productivity.

Clearly the publication of this paper in Labour Market Trends is an important statement by one branch of Government.

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09mar03b: Anton Stark: Necessary credentials at the BEEB

I left school at 18. I took three A levels but as I was moving house and starting a new job, I have never discovered if I passed or what grades I got. I am now 35 and have worked all the time since except for one month when the company I worked for went bust.

I started as a retail assistant in a photo shop. I then got a job in London working for a photographer for two years before returning North to work in a photographic studio in Leeds. After five years, the studio went bust and I started my own business, which become so successful I have saturated my particular market.

While I was working in London, I applied to the BBC for the position of trainee cameraman. Out of hundreds of applicants I survived three interviews and got down to the final dozen. I remember that there were about as many jobs as final interviewees. I was offered a place by letter shortly afterwards.

Within days I received a phone call to double check my physics O level result. I had a C grade but BBC Recruitment insisted on a B grade. They had initially misread the CV and thought I had a B. So no job. They did say I could reapply the following year with a B grade in O level physics and I would be offered a job.

Of course, I followed other avenues.

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05jul03a: Lecturer in Politics: From the leafy suburbs: Straight A's but dim.

The expansion of higher education has meant that we have many more students from leafy suburbs who have straight 'A's at A-level. They are socially confident, forceful but dim.

Overall there are only 10% of students interested in the subject. The rest just want to know how to pass the exam. It is the 10% who make my job worth-while.

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10jul03a: Lecturer at Strathclyde: We're OK. The leafy suburbs head for Glasgow.

The problem of dim students from the leafy suburbs does not impact us. They all go to the University of Glasgow.

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22jul03a: New graduate: Too many wooly theories.

I have just got a 2.1 in Business Management. With this qualification I have the opportunity to further my career. However, I do not thin the course taught me anything above an A-level standard.. But one thing was good about it. This was the practice I got at giving presentations. I am now much better at that.

A Powerpoint presentation took about one hour to get my thoughts together but doing one or two a week gave me allot of experience.

There were no structured lecture just tutorials run by students. If the students did a good job it was OK. But this was rare. Most of them were so poor that whenever we could get away with it we did not attend.

When exam time came we had no notes so had to learn the stuff ourselves as best we could. We crammed in three months worth of a topic int week. I did my geography exam with a days revision.

I have become lazy and unfocused due to sitting in these tutorials that fellow students had knocked up the night before while half-drunk.

In short I am now good at presentation but my level of knowledge is abysmal. I feel business management knowledge could be great but on the course there were too many wooly theories. It would have been so good to get practical experience and see how businesses adopted their strategies. A few visits would have been very helpful.

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27jul03a: Postgraduate at Northern University: Thirst for beer greater than the thirst for knowledge.

In my University we have a college system, which is meant to mix students from diffferent disciplines so they exchange ideas and have have a social life which does not simply revolve around students studing the same subject.

To some extent this works but it is highly constrained by the fact that as soon as term is over, the students are evicted to make way for conference delegates or even bed and breakfast tourists. This concentrates activity so that university life becomes mostly studing for exams and social drinking.

Students live within the administrative machine of the University. We feel that we are units of production for an organisation aimed at fulfulling their latest five year plan.

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09aug03a: Steve Dixon: The Careers Officer said "You'll only be a journalist if you marry the editor's daughter"

I was about to leave Ashfield Secondary Modern School when the local Careers Officer gave 'us' pupils a chat.

The year was 1964 and I was at the tender age of 14, unqualified after spending 4 years in the school's remedial class. The Careers Officers talked to me in a friendly but glib manner.

"Do you like meeting people?" he enquired.

"No I replied".He crossed off the section on his form that said , 'suitable for shop work'.

After a number of these types of basic questions it became apparent that I did not want to work packing chocolates, warehouse labouring or any other of the other menial mindless posts on offer.

The Careers Officer threw his hands up and said, "Fine, so what do you what job do you want to do?"

I naively replied, "I want to be a journalist".

The officer laughed, firstly with a slight chuckle and then he couldn't contain himself and roared with mirth.

"Listen lad, I can tell you now that the only chance you have of entering journalism is to marry the editor's daughter".

That was the end of the interview.

I attained my wish and was appointed by Reed (Northern) Newspapers as Editor of one of their titles. At 32 I was their youngest ever editor and had already had my work published, via the York Press Agency, in the Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Express, in fact nearly all the national newspapers as well as popular culture magazines like N.M.E., the Face, i-D, Elle etc.

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18apr04a: Printer's son, Yorkshire: Universities are not that academic.

When I was at Sixth form college, I was the only person who put my hand up, to say I wanted a job after my A-levels. On meeting the careers officer afterwards he persuaded me to go to University saying it would be "The best three years of my life".

He was right - the social life was great. However, the fact remains that University is fun, but is it just a reward for passing A levels?

My first year was repeating the previous two years I had done at sixth form. The second and third years could have been done in 1 year.

Money spent on higher education? Thousands of pounds could be saved, but as the goverment know, this would add 100's of thousands onto the unemployment figures.

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19apr04a: Recent graduate: Out of the working class and into debt.

I'm as working class as you want, definitely not from a leafy suburb but from an underpriveledged inner city area. I went to a northern university to broaden my horizons. It was a great experience, I did drama, performance and communication art. I specialised in drama.

However, now I work in a bank and my years at university have left me with a debt of 16,000, which includes a 10,000 student loan. (I hear that in 2010 the average student will leave with a debt of 30,000.)

It will be several years before I am in a position to have a mortgage and get into the housing market. My salary is sufficient for a modest mortgage but the debts from my education would prevent me successfuly getting through a mortgage application process.

For people that do vocational degrees the finiancial position is much better. But work experience is what many employers want these days. It is hard to gain that while you are doing a degree.

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25may07a: IT infrastructure consultant: Degrees don't count.

I am an IT infrastructure consultant with 10 years' experience working with higher management on recruitment and IT recruitment policy.

I am frequently asked to advise companies on their recruitment into technical positions. A question that often arises is that of academic qualifications and experience.

The general opinion of myself and the people I advise is that degrees as qualifications make little or no difference to a candidate's desirability. Some clients argue that a degree is a useful pre-qualification - at least it shows the candidate has the persistance to last three years on one pursuit.

However, while I have seen graduates employed in my field, which is pretty high tech, I cannot recall ever being responsible for employing a graduate out of about a hundred appointees. One of the issues is that for the lower level posts new graduates expect to be paid significantly more. At higher levels it's only experience that counts.

I have frequently worked alongside graduates. A particular aspect I have perceived about graduates is their impulse to relate what happens in the real world to what they were taught at university. It just does not work. They would be better clearing their mind (if possible) so they could learn from experience.

In my field, qualifications that have been useful are vendor qualifications, such as the Cisco, Microsoft and Red Hat certification programmes. They at least show a knowledge of the relevant technologies.

These can be studied with the help of books, the internet searching and e-learning. Short courses are also useful if they are quickly followed by experience.

Some educational institutes do try to teach these qualification but in my experience have the tendency to drag them out

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25may07b: David Ward Maclean: Despair