Image: Admissions ceremony at Selwyn College, Cambridge, 2016/Flickr.
Social mobility and universities have rarely been out of the news in recent months. Today it was reported that wealthy students are tightening their grip on university places. Back in October, Labour MP David Lammy published data on the rising proportion of Oxbridge offers made to those in the top two classes of society. A couple of weeks ago the government came under fire for its failure to act on social mobility. And the outrage has been steadily growing about the gulf between university vice-chancellors’ pay and that of rank-and-file university staff.
We’re left with an image of an elite higher education system which can easily be portrayed as “bastions of privilege” - and with a government powerless or unwilling to tackle entrenched inequality and worsening social mobility. The stories of elite academic pay and top universities inaccessible to ordinary people have never quite overlapped, but they are manifestations of the same problem – systemic segregation of class, wealth and privilege in our society. This week, Justine Greening announced an upcoming social mobility action-plan. If the government is serious, getting more disadvantaged students into Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities must be part of the effort to break down the cycle of social segregation.
So what needs to happen?
Firstly, Oxford and Cambridge and their ilk need to stop asking for straight A* grades. Grades are a crude and homogenising measure of academic ability which ignore the dramatic impact circumstances have on a child’s educational attainment, and the huge discrepancies of privilege between students. How many students slip through the net simply because they miss out on grades they would have achieved had they attended a different school?
Oxford and Cambridge say they adjust for applicants’ background, but the notes on Cambridge’s admissions pages state that “we don’t use contextual data to systematically make conditional offers at lower grades”, and no mention is made of contextual data in the prospectus. They also offer an “extenuating circumstances form”; again, the notes imply that it’s only there for the most extreme cases. This isn’t good enough. Oxbridge must routinely and systematically take account of students’ circumstances and how this might impact their grades, and pro-actively promote this approach so that students and teachers know about it.
Grades are one hurdle, a compounding one is culture. I was the first student from my school, a comprehensive in an ex-mining town in Warwickshire, to go to Oxbridge for several years. At least two teachers questioned why I was applying, basically implying that Oxbridge wasn’t for people like me. I wasn’t the brightest student in my year – at a private school, plenty of my year group would have been natural Oxbridge fodder. But Oxbridge wasn’t even discussed. Even getting into Warwick was a bit unusual. Virtually everybody I studied A-levels with went to university – but they went to universities for “people like us”. This is a pattern. It’s estimated that around 2,800 state-school students get the grades to get into a Russell Group university but don’t go to one. Cambridge and Oxford both run widening participation programmes, but with the proportion of Oxbridge entrants from the top two classes of society rising, they are clearly not effective enough.
That teachers in schools like mine often fail to encourage students to apply to top universities, is largely down to ignorance born of social segregation itself. Generally Oxbridge isn’t within their own experience, and teachers are just as likely to believe the stereotypes as anyone else.
As institutions which receive a considerable amount of their income from the taxpayer, this segregation-derived ignorance is a problem Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities should be addressing. As well as adopting more flexible entry requirements, they should be routinely engaging with secondary schools of all descriptions to educate students and staff about what it’s really like at their institutions, that plenty of state schools students attend, and that their applications would be welcomed. They could also support students with their applications and familiarise them with the interview process – the kind of extra help that gives independent-school students yet another edge. Just as importantly, they should be working with primary schools to reach disadvantaged students at an early age, when it might make a different to their educational attainment.
All of this could serve a wider social purpose as well, breaking down social barriers by giving students the opportunity to work with new ideas and new people, and fostering interaction between worlds which too often remain separate. Ofsted reported this week that 190 schools have not seen improvement for 10 years – this is an opportunity for universities to support schools to raise academic attainment across the board.
So how do we make all this happen? Given that the universities simply aren’t making enough progress on their own, the introduction of demographic quotas is the only way to stimulate real and rapid change. It's an idea that's beginning to attract support from figures within universities themselves, like Tim Blackman, Vice Chancellor of Middlesex University. Quotas would force universities to act to maintain their academic standards. In the short term, this would mean reconsidering entry requirements; over the long term, they would work creatively with primary and secondary schools so that children have the chance to develop into “Oxbridge material”.
The outcome would be hugely beneficial for universities too, enriching their academic work by accommodating a greater diversity of perspectives. The government’s social mobility action-plan is the perfect place to propose a radical plan to transform the social makeup of our elite universities. It’s time to stop talking, stop tinkering, and act.