Universities Not Attracting Poor Students
The Office for Fair Access (Offa) has reported this month (September) that the numbers of students from poorer backgrounds going to university are not increasing. It is worth remembering that the current and past tuition fee increases were meant to be backed up by bursaries for poorer students and specific access policy agreements with every university.
Newer Universities Doing the Most
Whilst £395 million has been spent by universities on bursaries and ‘outreach’ work, with bigger amounts offered by the elite institutions, poorer student numbers are still not increasing significantly at the elite within Oxbridge and the Russell Group. The great majority of poorer students study at (the newer) modern universities, according to Les Ebdon (Chair of the Million+ Group). In effect it is the modern universities that are carrying the biggest weight in attempting to ensure fair access and social opportunity and mobility, often with less resources.
Not our Fault Say Elite
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts admits that “Social mobility in this country has stalled.” The Russell Group has stressed (as it has in previous years) that it is not the money on offer to poorer students that counts, but what A’level grades they achieve in the right subjects. Additionally, independent schools are particularly vociferous in being against what they call ‘social engineering’ and judging entry into university on anything but A’ level grades. Where does this leave those of us who advise or mentor students in so-called ordinary schools, or have students and clients from poorer backgrounds?
Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust (a man who puts his time and money into widening university opportunities for poorer students) has already stated that Offa needs to be given real resources and if necessary, real teeth. He has a point, in that Offa seems to be a reporting and monitoring tool rather than a method of getting state funded institutions to provide higher education opportunities for more than students in the elite independent, grammar and wealthy-area state schools.
The fact that almost 50 years of research into A’ levels shows they have no correlation to degree results and can hardly be seen as a measure of potential. Similarly, the idea that a B grade from a deprived inner city school might be worth as much as say an A grade from Eton (weighted credits), whilst accepted, has seen to be quietly dropped.
Are we getting value from our universities?
It is normal for all of us as parents and advisers to want the best for our children and students, but is it useful to educate an elite based mainly on parental income and influence? In an era of seeking value for money in the public sector, don’t we want our taxes to subsidise the brightest who will generate wealth for us all, regardless of social background? This maybe impossible, but perhaps we should be demanding results from our elite institutions, rather than platitudes.
On a positive note, some alternatives are emerging to the massive amounts of graduation debt forecast for future students from all backgrounds, in that many EU universities are offering English taught degrees at lower fees. In the case of Finland (see article on Finland), there are no tuition fees at all, just living costs to manage. If this government is really determined to increase social opportunity and future wealth generation, and repair Labour’s ineffectual management in this area, might they not let students have bursaries to study anywhere? If not, then why not at a Bologna compliant university in the EU? Just a thought.
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