Monday, May 25, 2009

Liberty University drops Democrats as official club

Values clash with mission

Liberty University says the school's College Democrats chapter can no longer be recognized as an official club because its principles are anathema to the Lynchburg, Va., school's Christian doctrine and because club officials misled the school. "It's a symbolic thing," said Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. "These are great Christian kids. I sit with them at ball games, they mean well, but they're not doing what they said they were going to do when they formed."

He said club organizers promised to stand for pro-life, pro-family causes and to work to move the Democratic Party in that direction, but have instead supported pro-choice candidates who work at cross-purposes to the school's Christian beliefs.

In the week since the decision, the club has become a cause celebre, being mentioned in Virginia's Democratic primary for governor and becoming the subject of a fundraising campaign. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urged the school to reconsider.

"Americans understand the wisdom of being evenhanded when it comes to matters of expression of political opinion," Mr. Kaine said in a statement issued by the DNC. "For Liberty University to deprive the College Democrats of the same opportunity as College Republicans to associate and be a recognized as a campus organization violates that fundamental principle of fairness and teaches the students the wrong message about civil life as they move from college into the broader world."

Terry McAuliffe, one of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination to succeed Mr. Kaine, held a conference call with reporters Friday to criticize the school's action.

Liberty removed the official designation May 15. The club is not being disbanded, but may not use the school's name or receive school funding. Students can still meet as a group at the school and use some school facilities.

"We are unable to lend support to a club whose parent organization stands against the moral principles held by Liberty University," wrote Mark Hine, vice president for student affairs, in an e-mail to club members. "We are removing the club from the Liberty Web site and you will need to cease using Liberty University's name, including any logo, seal or mark of Liberty University," Mr. Hine wrote. "They are not to be used in any of your publications, electronic or Internet, including but not limited to, any Web site, Facebook, Twitter or any other such publication."

About 30 students belong to the chapter.


Top British High Schools boycott ‘biased’ Durham University

The leading university's "affirmative action" entry system handicaps high performers.

I must say that Australian students have it a lot simpler. If you get a high enough mark in your final High School exam you get in wherever you apply and that is that. But each faculty has its own cutoff. You have to get REALLY high marks to get into Medicine, for instance, but the Arts faculty is pretty undemanding. Both my son and I are graduates of the University of Queensland, for instance, which was established in 1909 and does very well in international rankings. But if my son's final High School marks had been a bit low, he would probably have got into one of the newer universities around the place, which have lower cutoff points for student acceptance. Except perhaps for medicine there are no interviews or letters of self-promotion or any of that crap.

SOME of the country’s most academic schools are discouraging pupils from applying to popular courses at Durham University in protest at what they see as an admissions system “fixed” against them. The pupils are being told that they are likely to be overlooked for some courses because Durham uses a handicap system, based on mathematical formulae, to favour candidates from schools with poor grades. As a result, candidates from high-performing schools - whether state or independent - are penalised.

Durham, Oxford and Cambridge are among those universities that have adopted formulae that use GCSE results data specially compiled by Ed Balls’s Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF). The system gives a rating to the GCSE performance of every school in the country which is used to “weight” the scores of university applicants. The thinking is that because candidates from low-scoring schools have outstripped their peers, they deserve more credit than pupils who score a string of A* grades at a school where most pupils do so.

The extra points can be decisive in “tie breakers” for some of Durham’s most heavily oversubscribed courses, such as English and history, with more than 20 applicants per place.

Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of independent schools and headmaster of St Albans school, Hertfordshire, said he had sympathy with the plight of the university, which has to reject about 3,500 applicants a year predicted to score at least three As at A-level. “None of us has any quarrel with making an allowance for serious disadvantage in individual cases,” he said. “What all of us object to is some spurious mathematical formula being applied across the board as if some kind of genuine accuracy is achievable. “The message I and some colleagues are getting from Durham is that however brilliant your students are in English and history, send them somewhere else - we don’t want them.”

Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow school, London, said he was warning his brightest pupils they may not get offers for these subjects at Durham “because this year we have had a letter from them saying they are giving preference to pupils from low-achieving schools”.

The concern is spreading to the state sector. Martin Post, headmaster of Watford Grammar School for Boys - a comprehensive, despite its name - said the mathematical approach was flawed. “How can you weight a school on the basis of these GCSE results? Do they take into account, for example, vocational courses for which the government often gives the same value as four GCSEs? Bless them, these people in higher education are probably unaware of the wangles that go on to improve league positions.”

Universities have been under strong pressure from the government to raise the proportions of students from state schools and deprived families. Use of the formulae is only one of the techniques used.

Durham has said its system was introduced partly in response to a report last year by the National Council for Educational Excellence, which was endorsed by Gordon Brown, Balls and John Denham, the universities secretary.

Sir Martin Harris, the government’s director of fair access, said he expected the GCSE points method to spread. “Will it help fairer access if universities bear in mind average performance of the school? . . . I imagine universities will go down that path,” he said.

However, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said the methods were “antieducational”. He added: “The operation of these formulae is crude and unfair. Universities should be looking for those with the most talent. The country is making a grave mistake.”

Other universities using formulae include Cambridge, which uses government data to award variable points based on GCSEs. The university says no candidates win places solely on their modified GCSEs, but that it is “unarguable” that a candidate’s grades are affected by the school they attended.

Oxford also uses weighted GCSEs for admissions to medical degrees. On the course, which traditionally had a public school “rugger bugger” image, 50% of a candidate’s chances of being shortlisted for an interview depends on GCSE score, marked up if they attend a poorly performing school.

The Durham formula allows each candidate a maximum eight points for GCSEs. An A* scores one, with 0.6 for an A. The score is “modified” with up to 5.5 points to help candidates who have outperformed the average for their school.

Other universities that have requested GCSE figures include Leeds, Manchester, Bristol and Warwick. Some departments at Bristol, including history, give extra points to candidates from poorly performing schools, although the government data are used only for research.

Some sixth formers believe they may have already been hit by formulae or similar methods. Jack Harman, 19, attended King’s College school, Wimbledon, a high-performing school in south London. Even though he was predicted to gain three As at A-level, he was rejected by all five British universities to which he applied to read history - Oxford, Edinburgh, York, Warwick and King’s College London. He will now study in America instead. His mother Emma Duncan said: “I cannot say the British universities are definitely biased . . . [but] calibrating the children’s results with the school record may be one reason Jack was turned down.It is bonkers he does not have a place in a good university here.”

Universities said weighted GCSE scores were vital to see a candidate’s grades in context. A Durham spokesman said: “For some courses, competition is so fierce our selectors have to make choices between applicants who present themselves with identical credentials. “The DCSF standardisation measurement allows selectors to see how an applicant has performed in relation to their school’s average. The results have been used to inform decisions in favour of fee [paying] as well as nonfee paying schools.”

A threat to excellence

The government formula used to analyse GCSE results, adopted by Durham and Oxford, is obviously flawed. It is flawed for two reasons. First, because it assumes that all GCSE results signify an equal level of intellectual achievement. They do not. Many state schools enter their pupils for vocational qualifications which, if passed, are said to count as four good GCSE grades. This is a scam and it renders the whole concept of this government formula ridiculous.

Why, moreover, should a girl from a highly performing school who does slightly worse in her GCSE examinations than her peers, achieving, say, eight A grades against a school average of nine, be judged a weaker candidate than the boy from a less successful school who achieves five A grades against a school average of two or three? The latter candidate may be the stronger, but no mechanistic formula is going to establish the fact.

Ministers, rightly, want more bright young people from disadvantaged homes to win places at top universities. They think, wrongly, that this can be achieved by forcing universities to implement admissions policies that discriminate against candidates from independent and highly performing schools.

In fact, of course, the solution lies in the schools disadvantaged children attend. Labour has failed to raise standards in such schools and now wants us to believe that the problem is the elitism of our best universities. Great universities are, by definition, elitist. They are institutions that exist in order to promote academic excellence. That excellence will survive if the best candidates compete with another for the limited places available. Social engineering will destroy it.


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