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Gap is still wide between fenlands and FE-lands

Complete the following: Oxbridge is to further education as the sun is to...what? Surely, the earth (or possibly, The Guardian)? Either way it must bring out the great gap that exists between the two.

This not very original thought occurred to me recently during an admissions conference at Cambridge University - a gathering set up, ironically, to help promote entirely the opposite view; that is to show us (schools and colleges in the state sector) how keen they were to take in more of our sort of student.

Certainly they kept telling us they were keen. We want to encourage more students, said all the admissions tutors we met, to apply to us from your establishments. And they meant it. They really did.

The problem is though that they really don't know what our sort of student is, or what the colleges they study in are, or are like. Worse, they don't seem to know that they don't know! Cambridge is full of very bright people all sharing a sort of collective myopia, blinding them to the fact that there's another world altogether out there beyond the limits of their foggy fens.

They want more of our students, they say, conveniently overlooking the fact that many are on one-year courses that only begin in mid-September. By early October they've just about managed to find out what's on the syllabus and where the toilets are. Yet Oxford and Cambridge continue to insist on undergraduate applications being in by October 15 - two full months before the closing date for the other universities.

Any chance of this being changed, you ask? In the interests of FE students. Well, comes back the answer, you've got to understand that change comes about very slowly in a place like Cambridge. All those boards and committees you understand. And then there's Oxford to consider . . .

They want more of our students, they say, and are prepared to take them whatever level 3 qualification they hold - as long as it's called an A-level. No, that's not fair: they quite like the International Baccalaureate too!

How about a Business and Technology Education Council advanced? That's not an A-level BTEC qualification by any chance is it? No, it's a BTEC, BTEC! Hmm, pity. Not even a tiny bit A-level-ish then? No. Well, fine, they'll take the BTEC . . . as long as the students do some A-levels as well.

All right, that's BTEC out, but what about GNVQ? A GNV-what was that you said? Q. Ah yes, leafy place in London, near Richmond. We get a lot of students from there. No, that's Kew. I mean Q - as in qualification. Qualification as in A-level qualification? No, but (and this is where you get smart) they're going to call them applied A-levels. Eyes brighten; but that "applied" gives trouble. What exactly does it mean? You tell them. Oh, I see. Don't call us, we'll call you.

They want more of our students they say, particularly our mature students. Large numbers of mature students are on access courses these days, you point out. Access, access, hmm. Perhaps you could tell us something more about this access. A colleague from another FE college obliges. Yes, yes, that sounds very good, of course they'd need to do a couple of academic A-levels afterwards. And so on it goes.

But even with A-levels you can never be quite sure where the firm ground gives out and the boggy Cambridge fenlands begin. A tutor in the law faculty who seemed convinced it was still 1952, was a case in point. After telling us about "ladies" and how many of them were coming into the profession these days, he outlined his hierarchy of A-level subjects. He had come to terms with the upstart politics; was even prepared to see some merit in the make weight theatre studies; but nothing, repeat nothing was going to make him take the abomination of sociology seriously. His ideal combination as a preparation for a Cambridge law degree? Maths, history and Latin. Now, hands up all those FE colleges with a classics department!

The general rule of thumb seemed to be, the newer the subject the greater the suspicion attached to it. At a dinner where toasts to God and the Queen were proposed at 10-minute intervals (a tricky one for an atheist who is also a republican) I crossed forks with a militant. For him there was only one subject - and it wasn't sociology! All right, he was prepared to accept that the hard sciences had some academic rigour, but had I seen the sort of wishy-washy things they did in the arts these days? Things like English - how could anyone call them subjects for God's sake?

Was anything worse than English? I asked. His eyes rolled. Steam hissed gently from his carefully-calibrated ears. If I must know, there was. The subject he really, really couldn't stand was media studies.

After a few more courses (and toasts) he felt sorry enough for me to ask what I taught. Oh, I said, English mainly. With a bit of media studies. You know, the sort of thing where you measure the gap between The Sun and The Guardian!

Stephen Jones is a London FE college lecturer

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