We can’t rely on universities to solve their accessibility problems

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The Sutton Trust recently published a report which has since made waves on social media. The report finds that eight top British schools had as many Oxbridge acceptances as another 2894 schools and colleges put together between 2015 and 2017. This has brought to light the debate on where the fault and responsibility for such an imbalance ought to lie: the universities, the schools, or the government?

Dr Lee Elliot Major, the Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, has suggested that social mobility issues cannot be solved through education alone. This is correct – the issue of education access and representation is just the tip of the iceberg in social mobility, which boils down to a much wider cultural issue. However, education is nevertheless a good place to start the inquiry.

Dr Major has spoken about solutions to this problem in higher education. One he suggests is randomisation: once students have passed a certain academic bar, candidates will then be randomly selected, in an effort aimed to help promote diversity. However, it must be acknowledged that it is still entirely possible that in a random ballot privileged students will be disproportionately represented. Privileged students are far more likely to pass the academic bar in the first place, due to access to private schools and tuition. Many universities also like to interview candidates in order to determine who has potential, viewing interviews as a way of finding out which students are not only good on paper, but those who have the skills necessary to excel. A random ballot would presumably take away this step in the process, making it almost exclusively about an applicant’s grades, and not their ability to think. Such a system would fail to consider other qualities a student may possess such as sporting talent and other extracurricular interests.

Dr Major has also suggested that some of these issues can be resolved by introducing a nationwide scheme of undergraduate students tutoring high school pupils. He argues that this kind of ‘giving back’ initiative will enable high achieving students to give a leg up to those in their community, especially since many high achieving students will move away from their home towns to larger cities. However, most students are not qualified to teach, and implementing such training would be expensive and these funds may be better placed in the hands of professional teachers. It also fails to consider that only the most motivated school children would be willing to undertake additional teaching, leaving behind students who lack the support and motivating from their teachers, peers, and parents, often those who need the tutoring the most. Responsibility cannot fall to schools, either: teachers in many state funded schools are being pushed to their limits as resources are stretched further.

“It is clear that the onus cannot fall onto students or teachers to fix the issue: there is a much wider, cultural, and systemic problem at play.”

Students attending comprehensive schools are even less likely to be accepted into Oxbridge than selective state-educated students, an important factor which is all too often overlooked. It was found in the Sutton Trust Report that independent school pupils are 7 times more likely to gain a place at Oxbridge compared to those in non-selective state schools.

Comprehensive-educated students often lack the support and encouragement which is provided for more privileged students. This opens up the possibility for students to be left behind and given up on. This is clearly reflected in applications statistics: according to the Sutton Trust, almost a quarter of students in independent schools in the top fifth of all schools for exam results applied to Oxbridge, but only 11% of students in comprehensives in the same high achieving group of schools did so. Of those who applied to Oxbridge from schools in the top fifth, 35% were successful from independent schools, but only 28% of those applying from comprehensives were accepted. It falls to the government to implement both improved selection criteria in universities, and support in state schools, particularly comprehensive schools, in order to level the playing field.

The Sutton Trust report suggests that universities can help to solve the issue by making greater use of contextual data in their admissions process – to open up access to students from less privileged backgrounds – as well as by using a geographic element in access agreements and improving outreach efforts. These recommendations are certainly welcome. However, this must be enforced externally with a clear mechanism for holding universities to account when statistics fail to improve. It has been consistently demonstrated that universities are incapable of ensuring that talent from all areas and backgrounds is adequately represented. The government should possess some leverage when it comes to changing this.

The report also suggests that schools should provide a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional, impartial advisers to all students. Again, this is a desirable goal. However, providing such as service cannot, as it stands, come from within schools themselves since many schools will lack the necessary funding and resources. Like many of the other solutions in the report, this is paradoxical. The schools who need careers advisers the most, will seldom have the funding, but those who need it the least, the schools which already have a strong Oxbridge presence, will have plentiful resources.

It is clear that the onus cannot fall onto students or teachers to fix the issue: there is a much wider, cultural, and systemic problem at play. Universities have proven that they cannot be trusted to put adequate systems in place to ensure satisfactory representation and accessibility. The effort, then, must fall to the government.

“It has been consistently demonstrated that universities are incapable of ensuring that talent from all areas and backgrounds is adequately represented.”

The Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, said “I want universities to work with us, consider the data carefully and look at their own admissions policies to work out what can be done to ensure that their university is open to everyone who has the potential, no matter their background or where they are from.” However, these platitudes aren’t enough. The government cannot simply monitor admissions statistics and intervene when necessary. Instead, an overhaul of the current process is needed: it is only through systemic change that these issues can be tackled. The government must intervene from the very start, rather than performing a merely supervisory role. 

The issue is clearly systemic. This fact has been used by universities in order to deflect blame, and many have been quick to criticise this. But the simple fact is that universities cannot be trusted to fix the problem by themselves. The government must enforce a scheme of representation and accessibility, levelling the playing field, requiring universities to accept quotas of students from all backgrounds, while allowing the freedom to choose the most talented of these students via interview and through examination of both academic talent and of extracurricular achievements, as well as considering hardship. Only in this way will the worrying trend of inaccessibility be reversed.