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Time for Affirmative Action? Balancing Equity and Access to Higher Education in the UK

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According to the Sutton Trust high-attaining comprehensive school students are significantly less likely to attend any of Britain's top universities than their independent school rivals with the same grades. The report published by the Sutton Trust earlier this year makes depressing reading. It found that students at some of the country's leading comprehensive schools with the equivalent of at least three A grades are a third less likely to go to one of the UK's 30 most selective universities than their peers at independent schools.

What can be done? One possible solution might be to adopt the approach taken by the great US state of Texas. In one of the boldest of college admissions experiments, the 75th Texas legislature passed HB 588, which guarantees high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class admission to any Texas public college or university. Admissions decisions for students who do not graduate in the top ten percent of their class are based on a broad range of objective and subjective criteria. Signed into law in May 1997, HB 588--popularly known as the top 10% law--sought not only to recover the drop in black and Hispanic representation at its flag ship institutions following the judicial ban on affirmative action, but also to increase the number of high schools that sent students to the four-year public universities.

Has it worked? In 2008 a report carried out by researchers at Princeton University found that HB 588

'has triggered powerful mechanisms that, combined with the changing demography of the state and the automatic admission regime, have broadened access to the public flagships to high achieving students from the entire state of Texas. By strengthening ties between the top universities and high schools with low college going traditions, the Longhorn and Century Scholars program has begun to improve high school climate and raise the number of economically disadvantaged students who attend the public flagships.'

The question is could this work in the UK? The Texas model is 'limited' to a distinct geographical area. For a similar scheme to work here in the government could 'require' each of our top universities to link to schools in a particular region or locality, schools that do not have a track record of sending their most able students to our premier institutions. If any student at one of these schools meets the entry requirements he or she would be guaranteed a place. Opening up our elite universities must be at the heart of Labour's next manifesto.

The sad truth is that too many in our movement perceive there to be little political mileage in calling for the reform of private schools and more equal access to universities. This is because those who already have influence, those who already have a "voice" in our society, have such a high stake in the current order they, almost subconsciously, mobilise and organise in order protect it. Far from abandoning the idea of social mobility I think we need to set about creating a society that reduces the real barriers that prevent people from certain social backgrounds achieving their full potential.

I agree that personal progress should never be measured by the extent to which individuals escape their social background, but we must also accept that in order to overcome entrenched privilege and vested interests we must actively seek to open up society and end the present 'closed shop' that has, for too long, stifled meritocracy by supporting an aristocracy of the elite.