Background still matters in too many cases

University admissions are a sensitive issue, and rightly so
July 18, 2013

There is no doubt in my mind that going to university is a transformative personal experience. A degree typically boosts lifetime earnings by more than £100,000, opens the door to desirable careers, creates lifelong friendships and broadens horizons forever. Graduates are more likely to live longer, as well as avoid smoking, obesity and depression.

The idea that access to this astonishing leg-up should somehow be dependent upon background is of course abhorrent. I don’t believe that because you have come from a poor family you are automatically less suited to university. And nor do I believe that if you have had the misfortune of weak schooling this should ever bar you from higher education. The evidence clearly shows that university can transcend previous disadvantages.

But even though things are getting better, background does still matter in far too many cases. We have just had the highest ever rate of university applications from students in the most disadvantaged quintile. In 2004 11 per cent of students from this group applied to go to university. Now it is up to 19.5 per cent. But when you compare this with the 54 per cent application rate from the most advantaged quintile it is clear that we still have a very long way to go.

However, it is precisely because getting into university makes such a difference to lives that emotions can run so high in discussions about how to tackle this imbalance.

The most contentious question of all has always been whether it is fair for highly selective universities to accept disadvantaged students with great potential but lower grades. In YouGov’s poll for Prospect, 41 per cent of people say this wouldn’t be damaging. But another 31 per cent fear standards of education and the quality of graduates would fall.

A recent study of Oxford University students found that private school pupils actually performed less well than state school students in their final exams relative to their GCSE results. A study at Bristol University also concluded that, on average, state school students outperformed independent school students with similar A-level grades.

This whole debate was particularly fraught when each university had a fixed number of places, tightly controlled by the government. But higher education is no longer a zero sum game. Last year, for the first time, universities were free to recruit as many students as they liked with AAB or better at A-level. This year the threshold is ABB. Many of the most selective universities have thus been freed completely from restrictions on their numbers.

Medical degree places, which are funded by the health budget, remain the exception. King’s College London’s medical school provides a striking example of the the sort of creative thinking that can make a difference. Given the conventional “three As” entry requirement, chances for state school students to study medicine in London can be limited. But KCL admits 50 students a year from state schools in the city’s poorest boroughs with three Bs. These places are in addition to the normal intake—so no one with good grades (or a more traditional background) misses out. Critically, after studying a foundation year these students sit the same exams as the mainstream students and attain a success rate not far below them.

One thing that is sometimes missed in these debates though, is that a significant number of institutions, particularly at the more selective end, do already use contextualised data to enable them to look beyond A-level results. They use it at different stages in the applications process to ensure that great candidates who have had a tougher start in life don’t slip through their net. And far from being driven out, private school pupils have continued to be considerably more likely to secure a place at university than those at state schools. Around 71 per cent of young people who studied A-levels in state schools and colleges at age 17 in 2007-8 had progressed to higher education by age 19 in 2009-10. For independent school pupils the estimated progression rate was 87 per cent.

Universities are autonomous institutions and it would be wrong for ministers to try to dictate how they choose their students. But we support any university’s decision to use additional contextual data—with the crucial proviso that their admissions practice must be fair, evidence-based and transparent.

For many, the point at which admissions tutors are sifting through applications is already too late. Much of the really critical work to widen access to university happens long before. Nottingham University, for instance, begins after-school clubs with children in three disadvantaged communities at primary level. And the Big Deal programme at York University links pupils in years 9-11 with business mentors from companies like Google.

Our challenge now is to make sure that universities are investing in ideas that work. The Office for Fair Access and the Higher Education Funding Council for England are investigating ways in which their investment would be spent to greatest effect. I have made it clear that I expect universities to act on this advice. Nonetheless, we must also ensure that the application process itself is not a barrier.

In reality, the use of contextualised information is nothing new. Historically, universities began interviewing candidates so that they could look beyond mere grades and assess the potential of the person sitting before them. This approach is prone to error, however, because unless you see everyone, students who could shine at university but aren’t predicted stellar A-levels, may well never make it onto the interview shortlist. And, at least in the past, interviewers were at risk of picking people who looked and sounded most like them.

The sort of data that Ucas now makes available about candidates if institutions want it includes average GCSE grades for their school and the percentage of pupils living in a neighbourhood with a poor history of progression to university. Institutions use these flags at different stages and in different ways. It is not a given that they will make a lower grade offer, or be more lenient about dropped grades after results day—but they might.

Would a blind competition be fairer? Perhaps the question is “fairer for whom?” I suspect that very few parents of pupils at leading academic schools would argue that there are no grounds for looking differently at the achievements of a bright young person who has grown up in care and attended a failing school.

These are sensitive issues. They are also incredibly important. University is a life changing experience, and this government will continue to fight to ensure that it is one that is open to everybody. But universities will continue to enjoy autonomy on admissions, because academics are better placed than politicians ever will be to decide whom to enrol.