University admissions are a sensitive issue, and rightly soby David Willetts / July 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
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.…