University applications have finally seen their first rise since tuition fees were hiked, which is great news. We are to be encouraged, too, by the one per cent rise this year in applications from 18-year-olds living in the poorest areas of the country. Any increase, however small, among this group is good news and shows that our efforts to widen participation are not without reward.
Indeed, David Cameron is rejoicing in this latest success. At Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, he boasted: 'After all of the concerns that were expressed about the new way of paying for university finance reducing the number of students applying to university, the number of 18-year-olds has actually gone up.'
But it is not enough.
Applications from students from poor areas still account for less than 20 per cent of applications. From wealthy areas the figure is more than 50 per cent. This is not representative of the economic structure of the UK; we should not be patting ourselves on the back too heartily.
Those of us that work to level the playing field for students across all backgrounds, as we at the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT) do, face a hard challenge.
I see my role as a director of LNAT as empowering students from all walks of life to fight for their place in higher education. I believe that universities have a duty to find a way to see past discrepancies in schooling and background and take on the candidates with the greatest potential. Often that potential is raw, underdeveloped and fails to shine through traditional examinations, but it should be actively sought out by higher education bodies. Admissions tests achieve this. If used more widely, across more subjects and by more universities, admissions tests could change the way those from poorer backgrounds judge their chance of entry to higher education.
It is a constant and arduous task to reassure this group that they are entitled to claim a place at university, when the facts, figures and competition seem such a steadfast barrier.
More must be done. We see so clearly from these figures that this group is not as disenfranchised as the media would have us believe. Now is the time to increase our efforts and embolden their aspirations. Irreparable damage could be done to the state of the education system and to a generation of young people if we do not act now to capitalise on this small success.
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