Yesterday the Fair Access to University Group (FAUG) of Conservative MPs published a report entitled 'Achieving Fair Access: Removing Barriers, Realising Potential'. In short, it's about fairness and it's about access. If you read the report you will see that it does exactly what it says on the tin.
We've got a serious problem in our higher education system and its scale is not to be underestimated. The uncomfortable fact is that if you are educated at an independent school you are 22 times more likely to study at a highly selective university than your state school counterpart in receipt of 'free school meals'. Oh yes, and this rises to 55 times for Oxbridge.
Together with my colleagues in FAUG, Elizabeth Truss, James Clappison and Graham Stuart, I believe that this is unfair. We believe that access to study at the best universities should be a level playing field based on merit, not background.
Worrying figures for the period 2007 - 2009 show that the nation's top five schools, namely Westminster, Eton, St Paul's, St Paul's Girls' and Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, accounted for a staggering 946 of Oxbridge entrants whereas 2,000 state schools combined produced a mere 927. This shows a clear entrenched advantage for students from a small number of elite schools, predominantly in the independent sector. That's not an attack on excellent schools, it's a simple and stark fact.
Many ambitious and bright students are not realising their potential in the state sector. The causes are straightforward, for example, often students study so-called 'soft' subjects that are not valued by the top institutions, many simply do not apply at all even though they have the results to get in. There are issues with poorer standards of teaching and young people getting the wrong or poor advice. As a result, many bright and able students fail to realise they can have a shot at the top universities. Because the main challenges lie at the secondary level, so too will the solution.
So, to tackle the unfairness of entrenched advantage, we advocate a number of measures in our report including: -
Although there is always more that can be done, universities are doing their fair share to open up access. It would be wrong for the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to take an aggressive approach to them through the levelling of fines, together with heavy-handed benchmarks and targets. There is no evidence that top universities admissions policies are deliberately turning away poorer students for any other reason than academic merit. In reality many universities are making huge efforts to look beyond the results achieved at the potential of candidates
A failure to appreciate this by OFFA would be counterproductive to quality and fair access. OFFA needs to focus its attention on where the evidence leads and that is our secondary schools.
Many good universities deserve praise for what they're already doing for fair access. Take, for example, the mentoring scheme run by the University of Cardiff. In this scheme 72 students work with Year 10 pupils in local schools on a one-to-one basis to improve GCSE grades.
Birmingham University students deserve some recognition too. Their 'Forward Thinking' programme helps Year 8 pupils and their parents with support for their academic work and provides guidance on progression into education after 16 including transition to university. Universities are putting their money where their mouth is too; in 2008-2009 Russell Group universities alone spent £66.5million on bursaries helping over 31,000 students from the poorest backgrounds to attend their institutions.
These are great examples of how universities are already working for fair access but there many more. Yet without a lot of change, as we argue in our report, so much scope for attainment is being wasted. Analysis from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Sutton Trust shows that if university application patterns were the same across the board, regardless of sector, you can expect to see 4,500 additional students from comprehensive schools entering the top 500 courses overnight.
Going to a comprehensive school should not limit your life chances. Everyone deserves the same shot at going to the best universities, based on merit, not background. I hope politicians of all persuasions will join us in removing barriers and realising potential by supporting our Fair Access report.
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