The Government commission headed by social mobility “tsar” Alan Milburn published its latest report yesterday, claiming the Britain’s top universities are still failing to provide greater equality of access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Although the estimated number of state school pupils entering Russell Group universities increased between 2002/03 and 2011/12 by 2.6%, the Commission concluded that our most selective research universities have become proportionally more exclusive and less socially representative over the last decade, admitting 126 fewer students from the poorest backgrounds than a decade earlier. Most strikingly of all, Milburn’s report claimed that there are an estimated 3,700 ‘missing’ state-educated students who have the grades to get into Russell Group universities in England but do not get the places, what it calls the “fair access gap”.
Milburn is right to say that who gets in to university and how they get on are crucial in determining whether Britain’s rates of social mobility can be improved. Recent research has found that graduates earn around 77% more than non-graduates, and this distinction is only likely to increase in future years. Fair access to university participation is critically important to providing young people from low income backgrounds with a route into the professions and enabling them to achieve a higher standard of living.
The wrong solution
Unfortunately, Milburn’s proposed fix for the problem is predictable, but nonetheless alarming. He calls for the most selective universities to set “clear statistical targets” for more socially representative intakes. Not benchmarks against which their admissions could be viewed, but hard targets to be met when making decisions on which students to admit. He also calls for more use of contextual data in the admissions process, including the use of “lower offers to students from less advantaged backgrounds where appropriate”. Again unsurprisingly, Les Ebdon, the head of the Government’s Office of Fair Access to Higher Education (“OFFA”), seized on the report to describe elite universities’ performance in widening access as “unacceptable”. Ominously, Ebdon promised that the latest access agreements drawn up between OFFA and the universities in exchange for charging higher tuition fees would be "significantly challenging".
Let us be clear what this would mean: a shift to a university admissions system increasingly based on social engineering rather than academic merit and high standards in accordance with universities’ independent judgment. Ebdon and OFFA have the power to levy enormous fines on universities thought to be failing to deliver on access targets, giving it significant potential for a level of interference in admissions.
It is particularly regrettable that he should have chosen to target universities and their admissions processes in his response, when he essentially agrees with the analysis of me and fellow MPs in the Fair Access to University Group [PDF] that the most important interventions must in fact be made throughout the school system, well before pupils come to fill out their UCAS forms.
Milburn’s report admits that “we know that what happens in schools ultimately holds the key to who can participate in higher education”, before going on to call for a “genuine national effort” involving schools, careers services, and the government. It would be wrong to put all the weight on the university admissions system when the real barriers to fair access are so much deeper and largely beyond the control of universities.
Where's the evidence?
Milburn’s analysis, particularly of the 3,700 ‘missing’ state-educated students, is disputed and riddled with caveats. As the report concedes, there are a number of possible drivers of the “fair access gap” but “a lack of evidence about the relative importance of each one…Further research is required to explore the reasons for the existence of the fair access gap in more detail [emphasis added].”
It is shocking that he feels able to sanction further interference in universities’ admissions when he admits the evidence base is so uncertain as to the root causes of the problem. To the extent possible explanations are suggested, including low aspirations among students from less advantaged backgrounds and their parents and teachers, lack of knowledge of the applications process, not choosing the right subjects at A- level, under-prediction of A-level grades for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and less familiarity with admissions processes, these call for action at school level, admittedly with the active involvement of universities, rather than at admissions time.
Although there is widespread sympathy for the use of contextual data and social factors in admissions among universities themselves, many universities lack full confidence in the use of “contextual data”.
Key concerns cited in the Milburn report include “the lack of access to national data” and the need both for “further research to develop the evidence base” and to allow universities to use social and background data “in a more sophisticated way by providing a richer picture about the social background of applicants”. Even those who support a system of admissions aimed at delivering social justice via social engineering should surely have reason to pause to consider whether it is fair to proceed until there is real confidence that the methods actually work.
A role for universities
None of this is to say that universities don’t have a key role to play in delivering fairer access. Our 2012 report found numerous examples of outreach work by universities and highlighted the importance of university efforts in the provision of information which allows school pupils to make informed choices before choosing A-level subjects.To take one example, Oxford University runs over 2,400 outreach events a year, spending over £5m annually and having direct, face-to-face contact with three-quarters of all schools in the UK teaching post-16s.
Milburn himself acknowledges the increasing determination of universities to do their bit and that there is a lot of university action underway which will help make a difference. As Professor Michael Arthur, Vice Chancellor of Leeds University and former chair of the Russell Group made it clear to me, universities would “bite their arm off” to admit students from lower socio-economic groups.
It would be wrong if the response to Milburn’s report is a knee-jerk attack on universities and their admissions. Universities are making great efforts to play their part in widening access and their efforts must be given time to bear fruit. But ultimately they are the wrong target. Closing the “fair access gap” should be engraved into the ethos of Britain’s school system, and indeed society at large. It should be one of the key goals of every single teacher. This will be a long-term effort but better that than a quick fix which engenders academic freedom while distracting from the root causes of skewed access to universities.