Recently released statistics show that as the most selective English universities stand poised to treble their tuition fees in 2012, Oxford and Cambridge have utterly failed once again to improve their intake of state school pupils and those from a less advantaged background.
The figures, released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, reveal that in the last academic year, Oxford University’s intake of state school pupils actually decreased from 54.7% to 54.3%, falling drastically short of their HESA target of 67.3%. Cambridge University was also unsuccessful in improving its access figures, with its state school intake remaining steady from the previous year at 59.3%, far from their HESA target of 68.1%.
This comes in spite of repeated assurances from both universities that they spend upwards of two million pounds per year on “outreach activities” and “widening participation work”. Yet with UK students attending private schools making up a mere 6% of all pupils, these outreach programs clearly are simply not working.
Top universities repeatedly defend their poor access statistics with the argument that they can only select from those pupils achieving high enough grades to satisfy their entry requirements; pushing responsibility for the problem further back onto the state education sector. But this does not explain the poor results of their outreach programs, which are pouring millions of pound worth of funding into the problem each year and yet seem to be yielding extremely unimpressive results. In fact, given the annual rise in state school pupils making applications to the top universities, the decrease in the percentage of these students offered places by Oxford last year represents a phenomenal failure on the part of their access program (or a colossal waste of £2.5 million).
With the government promising ‘strict’ access requirements alongside their new tuition fees policy, it was hoped that serious improvement and modification might be made to these failing programs to offset the impact of the new £9000 fees on students from poorer backgrounds. Yet in reality, the government has produced a wishy-washy set of options and recommendations, with no set access targets or mandatory percentages for universities, overseen by a “toothless” regulator.
The result is that, as the government axes vital support systems for underprivileged students like the Education Maintenance Allowance and the Aim Higher Scheme, the vast majority of universities have been able to announce their intent to treble tuition fees to the highest possible figure without fear of any real ramification or the necessity to properly overhaul their access schemes at all.
The government might well demand a greater financial commitment to access schemes: indeed, both Oxford and Cambridge have dutifully pledged a further £1 million effort when their tuition fees rise, but this is completely meaningless when their current schemes are already yielding such pathetic results. £1 million may sound like an impressive figure: indeed David Willetts is certainly hoping it will pacify the hundreds of thousands of protesters devastated at the impact the new system will have on access figures at top universities, but simply pouring this into the hole already created by huge sums of money going into failing schemes is a purely demonstrative and impractical straw man.
What we need to see is a thorough overhaul and analysis of the existing access schemes of all universities, with hard evidence to show the impact and results they are having (or failing to have) in order to completely redefine the system to focus on those aspects of the outreach programs that actually work. Oxford University’s summer school for state pupils, for example, seems the only outreach program to have actual, tangible success; doubling the chances of achieving a place for those who attend. Millions of pounds worth of funding going into other schemes with little or no real results, could be much better redirected towards widening this program and starting similar ones at other top universities.
Something must be done, and urgently, to rectify the glaringly obvious fact that these expensive outreach programs are simply not working. And it is the lazy, hands-off approach the government has taken in setting its rules and guidelines for access requirements under the new tuition fees scheme that has failed to provide universities with the incentive to take the necessary action. The result of this, in combination with rocketing fees and scrapped state access programs, is likely to be a devastating drop in the numbers of pupils from poorer backgrounds and state schools taking up places at our top universities.