Higher Education : Access Denied

How my dreams of joining the academic elite were dashed.

Those of you who know me or follow my work will also know that I wasn’t an exemplary student at school. In fact, for a variety of reasons, my school career ended early when I was 15 and I didn’t return to what is known today as “formal education”.

As a kid I was kind of intense, particularly when a subject caught my attention. I started a school project on astronomy when I was 11 which ended up being a 2 year project that spanned 14 volumes and resulted in my giving a physics class to my peer 12 year olds on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram.

As reflected in my recent book, I used to want to take deep dives into the subjects I obsessed about, and they were many. This lead to boredom with the school curriculum and consequently disruptive behaviour which lead to me being characterised as a juvenile delinquent on more than one occasion. I used to bunk school and jump on a train to London to shoplift books at Foyles. Not any old books but fairly weighty academic volumes that fed a voracious appetite for learning.

University and higher education wasn’t “a thing” growing up in my household and it wasn’t really on the menu when I was at school. At a careers meeting when I was 13 I explained that I wanted to be an astronaut. The teacher became irritated, she said that she didn’t have a brochure for that and I could choose between the local meat processing factory, the Co-Op who were opening a new store in town or, if I got good grades, a job at the bank. I think my parents assumed that I would follow in the family business and be a car mechanic. Fortunately for me it was nearly the 80s and the microcomputer boom was almost upon us.

Although I finished school early I never left education, or at least learning. I still have an obsessive nature and a learning style that can be best described as osmosis. My first proper job was working for the Open University as a lab technician in the Genetics Group. I was 16, it was a panel interview and I ranted like Spud from the interview scene in the film Trainspotting. Despite having no qualifications at all they were impressed with my encyclopaedic knowledge of genetics and my way around a chemistry set. I worked with some impressive academics and PhD students there who even encouraged me to publish some of my work which lead me receiving my first letter addressed to Dr GBM before I was 17.

While at the OU I taught myself to code using the University mainframe computer where I was crunching some of the genetic data to predict sequence outcomes for experiments conducted using drosophila. That’s fruit flies to the man on the street. As mentioned earlier it was the beginning of the microcomputer boom and I quickly switched to the OU’s computing department and started writing programs for a new UK government scheme called “Micro’s in Schools”.

It wasn’t long before I hopped again and went to work for a small computer manufacturer in Oxford specialising in education called Research Machines Ltd (RML), today known as RM Plc. This isn’t the place for a full autopsy but someone who I met early in my days at RML was Seymour Papert from MIT while he was on a speaking tour for his book “MindStorms” and I was the “demo-man” for LOGO. It was Seymour who lit my flame and made me believe that computers would profoundly change the way we learn.

For the rest of my career see here. The point I’m wanting to make is that I have been blessed with random encounters and the generosity of many people from the academic community since leaving school without me ever having to take an exam or study for a degree. I had built my own faculty over 30 years that included some of the worlds most renowned thinkers and academics who gave me their time and insights freely.

I look back over the last 30+ years of my career and wonder where did all that time go, yet at the same time I can’t believe that I’ve packed so much into it. But it’s only now almost at the start of my 50s (yes I know I look and behave a lot younger), having helped partners and children through their degrees and masters, that I feel I have the time and the resources to consider higher education for myself.

It was my partner who suggested that I consider doing an Education MA. “After all”, she said, “you’re spending so much time researching, writing and speaking that you’ll probably enjoy it”. The idea struck a chord with me as I have become interested in a number of areas of research as well as the possibility of making some impact on the way we conduct assessment and what we value. I’ve also found that my lack of accreditation or certification created obstacles to my progression. Those of you who have read my book will have read my thought piece (page 82) that described an invitation I received for afternoon tea with the chairman of a well known university sector college in London to see if I would consider taking a senior leadership post. On discovering the poverty of my certificates it was decided unwise to put me forward.

So I decided to make enquiries. First, I canvassed respected friends and colleagues. I asked academic friends at MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, Bristol and UCL whether they thought I’d be eligible and if they thought a university would accept me without a degree. They were universally positive that I’d be accepted, all willing to provide references although some questioned the benefit of me going to university at all.

Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures at Bristol said in a message “they’d take you! not sure about the benefit — depends what the long term plan is”.

Richard Noss, Professor of Mathematics Education, IoE said “i can certainly vouch for G — in fact he should probably be running the course :-)” (sic).

Now I should point out that none of these good people were responding in an “official” capacity rather they were friends giving me a steer before I made any kind of application.

Encouraged by these positive words and because I live in London I decided to contact the Institute of Education, part of the University College London (UCL). I explained my situation and wondered if my work and experience would make me eligible for the Education MA programme.

I soon received a reply from IoE’s administrator that said:

“Thank you for your email. Unfortunately having a bachelor’s degree is a statutory requirement for admission into an MA course at the UCL — IOE.
I’m afraid you would be ineligible without this.”

This was disappointing news. I canvassed friends and colleagues specifically at the IoE for advice. Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the IoE, told me that he too had been turned down by the IoE in his day and did his MA at South Bank instead. This made me feel, at least, in excellent company. Dylan also pointed out that:

“most MA programmes specify ‘a good honours degree or equivalent’ with no clear definition of what ‘equivalent’ means, and many MA programmes explicitly allow material in the personal supporting statement to count towards equivalency”.

I returned to the administrator of the IoE requesting a clarification about the policy and whether in light of my experience what benefit would studying for an entrance degree bring me. Time passed and I didn’t receive a reply so I decided to take it up with Clare Brooks, Head of Department of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment.

Clare Brooks, IoE

Clare was more upbeat and encouraging, suggesting that I would need to enrol for an introductory module of the MA titled “What is Education?” in the first instance and that “should you pass that successful, we can review your enrolment onto the whole programme” (sic).

Number 1 for Education Worldwide?

Well that seemed quite reasonable to me and I advised Clare that I would be attending the open evening at the IoE the following week and looked forward to learning more about enrolment and how this would progress there. I was encouraged, excited even. I was genuinely looking forward to the opportunity to learn with peers and within a university environment particularly one that claims to be “Number 1 for Education Worldwide”.

The open evening started off with an introductory speech from Chris Husbands, Director of the UCL Institute of Education and UCL Vice-Provost (Academic Development), in one of the IoE’s main lecture halls. The last time I was in this hall it was to give a talk to some of the IoE’s academic staff, MA and PhD students. But tonight was an evening for post-graduates, people who already had a career in the outside world and were looking to further their education via the IoE’s MA and PhD programmes.

Death by Powerpoint — say what?

Chris treated us to a rambling talk with illegible PowerPoint slides. In fact, the illegibility of the slides became a key part of the talk as he explained that they looked perfectly fine when he was putting them together in his hotel room prior to flying back to London from Beijing a day earlier. In fact he mentioned Beijing a lot. He also spent a lot of time telling us how the IoE was ranked #1 for Education 2 years running in the QS rankings. Well they obviously hadn’t experienced Chris’ slides. It reminded me of the beauty parade of secondary schools that I took my daughter on before she started, where headteachers would bang on about their Ofsted ratings. But I did warm to Chris as he bounded around the hall sharing his lapel mic with anybody who wanted to ask a question. It was all a bit Saturday afternoon TV game show.

Chris should definitely consider a future in politics however given that he successfully managed to avoid answering any question directly. I asked him about his thoughts on current UK educational reforms and if IoE felt it had to respond to the current vogue of “traditionalist” reforms versus “progressive” reforms. He replied, at some length, that he didn’t understand what those terms meant. It really wasn’t a trick question, I was still feeling enthused at the possibility of being an IoE student.

Chris also managed to wax lyrical about how flexible and inclusive the IoE was, indeed this was the very thing that set it apart from the rest and why he thought it had been so successful in the QS rankings.

Speech over and it was now time to go and meet faculty and the representatives of each of the MA courses on offer to learn more. I made a beeline for the Education MA queue to speak to Dr Sandra Leaton Gray, Senior Lecturer in Education. It was a busy line with plenty of camaraderie between prospective candidates as we waited our turn. Some were in the final year of their degree, some had been teaching and some where changing career.

It took Leaton Gray less than 3 minutes to crush my enthusiasm for enrolling at the IoE (not that they’d have me).

I introduced myself and explained that I didn’t possess the traditional entrance requirements of a degree. It was as if I had stepped on some kind of incendiary device that triggered a wall to erect between myself and Leaton Gray. Why did I think it was possible to enrol for the MA when I hadn’t even completed a degree?

Feeling somewhat startled and a little humiliated in this public space I tried to explain that I had been quite active in the education sector amongst academics and that I’d been published. Sandra replied that this meant very little and that

unless I’d spent “two and a half years plodding through the literature, attending lectures & writing academic material” that only studying for a BA degree would give me I wouldn’t stand a chance of completing an MA.

I tried to persevere by explaining that the work that I had completed during the past two years required a substantial amount of research and reading of literature but Sandra wasn’t having it. “Running a think tank & writing a few reports didn’t count”, she said and continued that, “writing for an MA wasn’t the same or as much fun as writing a cool book”.

These were her words, I never mentioned anything about a “cool” book, I didn’t even get the chance to describe the subject matter.

Computer says NO

Sandra didn’t know me and I certainly didn’t know her so quite where she got her judgements from I don’t know. Other candidates waiting in line were equally aghast at the exchange and came to speak to me later in the evening.

I understand that having worked to earn her PhD Sandra has a vested interest in maintaining an intellectual hegemony. But on what basis she made these calls I have no idea. I wondered if I’d actually completed a BA degree some 30 years ago how useful would it be today? I tried to mention that Clare Brooks, the head of her department, had said that it may be possible for me to enrol on the introductory module but Leaton Gray was having none of it.

It was, as I’ve suggested, a total crushing of aspiration but I am indebted to Dr Leaton Gray.

For in those 3 short minutes she taught me an invaluable lesson — that regardless of our changing world, universities, and indeed the education structure itself, remain rigid and assessment focused. They have no interest in transformation, rather they exist only to reproduce and reinforce the status quo, to ensure that we live in a world of homogenised thought, an echo chamber in which they have tenure.

This episode is not without its irony. My motivation was to understand more about the way we assess our learners so that I could try to disrupt it, which of course is the very last thing that these businesses want. Why would you want to disrupt something that you already benefit from?


Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.