A recent report by the government’s commission on social mobility has found that since 2002, the number of state-educated students attending top Russell Group has declined, with the report suggesting Britain’s best and most academically selective institutions have a “long way to go” in becoming fully socially representative.
Over the past decade, a rise in the number of university places has meant that while state-educated and disadvantaged pupils were entering top universities in increasing numbers, this was not translating into balance of backgrounds. As a result, almost half of the new places have gone to privately-educated pupils.
The report further estimates that annually 3,700 state-educated pupils miss out on places at Russell Group universities. Among those that have been accepted, the proportion of students from state-educated background and from less-advantaged social groups was less in 2012 than in 2002.
The report looks at individual cases too. For example, Durham had a steep fall of state-school entries of 9.2% across the decade. Southampton, however, is one of the few who have improved their standing, and has been praised for its outreach and generous bursary programmes.
To address the overall imbalance, the report has suggesting a lowering of grade requirements where appropriate, guaranteed interviews and stronger use of “contextual data.”
While there is an obvious problem of equal opportunity that needs to be addressed on many levels, are the suggested recommendations practical? One clear problem with the lowering grade boundaries is that by doing so, the calibre of the university could be affected. The Russell Group are in constant competition with each other, and the only way to come on top on the league tables is with high results, which is achieved with a strong academic crop of students. Some students may not do well at A-level or IB because they are simply not so academically inclined, and would therefore not suit degree-level academia.
As many of you I’m sure will agree, Southampton University is full of like-minded people, who want to learn and improve with other people who want to learn and improve (and go to Jesters). I think this general attitude is heavily due to the fact that we all got more or less that same grades to get in. If people are accepted despite achieving lower grades at school come into lectures and seminars, they could bring the quality down – how detrimental could this be to our own degrees? I always find that seminars with active participation with people who can intelligently challenge each other are the most enjoyable and the useful. Students who are unable to participate properly create an environment which is unfair for those who can, and for themselves.
But this gives rise to another question: are these students not so academically inclined because they received state-education instead of private, and could they actually end up flourishing at university in spite of this? Research has shown state-educated students tend to out-perform their privately-educated peers at university, though the reverse is often the case at A-level. Indeed, Southampton, who has increased the number of state-school entries by over 3%, jumped from ranking 20 in 2008, to 14 by 2011.
In comes contextual data. This may mean top universities will take more seriously the extra-curricular activities you did at school, for example prefect, reading mentor, ‘form rep’, charity work, Duke of Edinburgh and so on. For disadvantaged pupils, this may also include care-giving and jobs done in addition to school to support the family. As someone who grew up through the state-system, I think considering all this can be very beneficial. I had school friends with tough personal circumstances who ended up putting their A-levels second. They still achieved decent grades, but not high enough for the Russell Group. Had their other activities and responsibilities been considered, and perhaps even their GCSE grades, I think they could have got into a top university and have done very well.
Interviews are another of the report’s recommendations. Interview-giving is a lengthy, time-consuming process, especially given the volume of applicants universities receive: interviewing everyone is probably next to impossible. Having said that, they are incredibly beneficial, as it gives a true sense of a person not transferable from a piece of paper. Someone’s enthusiasm and desire to learn and can really be sensed in an interview, even if their A-levels don’t reflect they same.
David Mendoza-Wolfson, VP Education Elect, welcomed the idea of more interviews, as they could lead to sensible flexibility for grade boundaries. However he cites the educational system as the main cause of the problem:
“It is clear to me that the fees method of funding HE is inadequate and off-putting to those from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds in this country. On that end, I support FAIR (fairforstudents.org.uk), which I think would be a far better way of funding HE which would see an increase in applications from the poorest in our society. The problem here doesn’t lie with the universities but in schools. Private schools are offering a far better standard of education.”
Overall the reaction to the report has been positive, with British universities and the Russell Group welcoming its results. Hopefully this is a step in direction of true inclusiveness and equal opportunity.