Across the UK in the last month thousands of new undergraduates have taken up their places at university. There has been frequent controversy surrounding education in the news in the past weeks, from outrage over proposed increases to tuition fees to concerns over unprecedented numbers of students missing out on university places. Yet one area of perpetual concern and inequality remains largely ignored by the media, politicians and academic institutions alike.
Results of an official survey by the Higher Education Statistics Agency released in April this year showed that at 7 of the UK’s Russell Group Universities (the 20 leading research institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge), less than 5% of students came from underprivileged areas where there is little precedent of university attendance. This is in spite of millions of pounds worth of funding ploughed into making access easier and more attractive to potential applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, both by the government and by individual institutions.
In addition, the percentage of state school students accepted into Oxford and Cambridge universities continues to hover just above the 50% mark in spite of these students making up an enormous 93% of school leavers.
Some rather simplistic commentators criticise the ‘iron grip’ of the upper classes on Oxbridge, suggesting that these top universities are deliberately biased towards students from privileged backgrounds and top independent schools such as Eton, Westminster and St.Paul’s. Yet one only has to look as far as the admissions statistics to see that the problem is far more subtle and complex than that.
The first problem is that there is a clear and direct correlation between the percentage of state school students applying to top universities and the percentage who are awarded places. The problem, it seems, has less to do with the admissions procedures than with the actual numbers of students applying to these universities in the first place.
Indeed it could even be suggested that universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, which interview almost every applicant before awarding them a place, do far more to champion students from underprivileged backgrounds than other universities. Rather than award places based on predicted results, the interview gives students an opportunity in person to demonstrate their initiative and academic potential aside from the facts and figures of their actual grades and achievements, which are often less impressive than those of students carefully coached and trained for Oxbridge entry by independent schools.
One potential solution might be to encourage or create guidelines forcing more universities to hold Oxbridge-style interview processes. Yes this would be met with opposition, yes it might raise the expense and time necessary for admissions procedures, but it would be a step in the right direction towards allowing underprivileged and underprepared candidates a fair chance to demonstrate their natural academic ability.
Another problem is the inevitable fear of swinging bias too far the other way. Whilst there is a natural urge to give an advantage to applicants who have not had the same chances of education and academic opportunities, it is also not fair to punish those students who have. No student should be held responsible or disadvantaged as a result of a choice which, ultimately, was almost always made by their parents before they were old enough to have any sense of the implications and connotations of private versus state education.
Whilst top universities continue to roll out impressive sounding schemes like the Cambridge ‘access bus’ that visits underprivileged areas where undergraduates give talks and hand out information to promising students, or the ‘shadowing scheme’ which provides opportunities for students to come and experience the lifestyle and lectures of an undergraduate, it is clear that these efforts are simply falling far short of the mark. Not enough is being done to encourage and help students from state schools and underprivileged backgrounds to apply to our top universities.
What is needed is a concerted, joint effort, with simultaneous strides made by universities themselves, by teachers, local education authorities and the government to actually effect the desperately needed change that everybody loves to talk about without actually taking serious action.
Top universities must do more to dispel the ‘elite’ label that puts many students off applying. Teachers unions must take action to prevent the alleged role teachers in some disadvantaged areas play in perpetuating this perception. Yet the bulk of the necessary action, it seems, must fall to the government.
The government needs to create opportunities and funding to allow desperately over-stretched state education establishments and teachers to provide extra opportunities, time and events to really reach out to their brightest students with information, encouragement and understanding about applying to the very best higher-education establishments. More state-funded programs to travel to these areas and raise awareness and understanding of the opportunities available could make a huge difference in boosting the access efforts of the individual universities.
And perhaps most importantly of all, the government should be thinking very carefully about the impact of the proposed removal of the cap on tuition fees for this group of underprivileged students. Already far too few of them are even applying to top universities, in spite of academic excellence and huge intellectual promise. It is not just for their sake that they must be encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities their achievements deserve, but for the sake of our future as a country. In such difficult and unstable economic times we simply cannot afford not to be taking full advantage of the promise and possibility our young generation has to offer. Should the proposed increases to tuition fees go ahead, we will be damning an entire generation of bright, intelligent students. They are already making only the smallest and most tentative steps towards the education they deserve. How can we justify deterring them altogether with the threat of an enormous debt that will almost certainly impact more greatly on their demographic than on any other group of university applicants?