Why we should not select students
We insist on selecting students for our courses, on the grounds that we, the teachers, know best who is capable of "coping with" them. However, we are dealing with adults here: if they want to make a free choice, then why should we stand in their way?
Increasingly, students are consumers. We charge them fees, and yet the contract between the college and the student is a strangely one-sided one. The student pays her money and does the work as prescribed by the college, and at the end the institution decides at its absolute discretion (most college regulations explicitly preclude any appeal against the "academic judgement" of the examiners) whether or not to make an award. There seems to be no other routine bargain so one-sided: viewed dispassionately it looks like a case of unfair contract terms.
But beyond this, colleges arrogate to themselves the right to decide pre-emptively that potential students will not —perhaps four years hence—reach the required standard for a given qualification. While we remain within the discourse of consumer choice, there is no problem with giving applicants the information they require to make an informed choice. But even in the much more problematic area of medical treatment, the UK courts have recently upheld the right of individuals to refuse treatment even when to do so will lead to their deaths. Indeed, on the day on which I write this, a court has supported the right of an imprisoned self-mutilating murderer to refuse treatment for a wound which he hopes will become infected and eventually kill him. The only exception to this right—with safeguards—applies only to patients detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.
Yet colleges routinely deny students the right to fail. They may cite all kinds of administrative reasons, but at root this is the same kind of paternalism as the medical profession has at last renounced.
What about the consequent mixed ability classes? They are more problems for teachers than for students, and that is mainly because of the mistaken belief that teachers are there to teach students rather than their subjects. In the real world they would not last long, because students who have made their own decisions about their courses will similarly make decisions to leave—unless of course they can't get (a proportion of) their money back.
But what then about retention and drop-out rates? Those are problems for institutions rather than students. We need to acknowledge that the pressure to select and "guide" students is driven by an institutional and business imperative, and not by a concern for education.