Universities urged to help poorer students
A report from the Sutton Trust has urged leading universities to drop entry requirements by two A-level grades for pupils on free school meals, saying it will give 50% more youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to secure places. Currently only 1,500 young people eligible for free school meals are admitted to the 30 most selective universities each year. That could rise to 2,250 if entry requirements are lowered. Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, said:
“Getting a degree from a top university is one of the surest routes to a good job. However, young people from low and moderate income homes are substantially under-represented at these universities.”
The report has been widely publicised, including in The Times: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/lower-grades-to-let-in-more-poor-students-dfc53z90v
Education is a key engine of social mobility. Schools and universities have a part to play in encouraging aspiration and attainment, not least by identifying those who will be successful in their institutions. This is critical, as all credible research shows that undergraduate success is most strongly related to grades they achieved in previous examinations.
HMC agrees with that pupils from poorer and under-represented backgrounds should potentially be offered a place at university on lower than usual grades, where admissions teams are clear they have the ability to thrive.
However, we reject targets based on over-simplistic categories related to type of school. Many pupils at independent schools come from lower income homes, funded by free or subsidised places. This year, for example, one third of entrants to the ‘Bristol Scholars’ bursary scheme were disadvantaged students who had attended independent schools. At the same time, many state school pupils are socially advantaged, especially those in expensive catchment areas of popular schools.
It is perfectly possible to help bright pupils from low income families and weak schools, whilst avoiding unfairly penalising pupils from successful backgrounds who have worked exceptionally hard to achieve the top grades. Universities are free to offer additional places to the disadvantaged students, which will ensure fairness for all.
Universities, like independent schools, should be free to make their own decisions. Selective universities rightly choose students with the greatest potential and least likelihood of dropping out. That is why they do longitudinal analysis taking applicants’ backgrounds and school records into account, establishing over time the most reliable indicators of potential.
Ultimately, getting to university is not a panacea. Many disadvantaged pupils go to low tariff universities where, for some subjects, the graduate earnings premium is negative.
Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of Whitgift and HMC Universities spokesman said:
“The Sutton Trust points to some important gaps in attainment – and therefore life opportunity – amongst the most disadvantaged young people. Careful individual considerations in admissions are a good way of mitigating these gaps, though the best way continues to be raising standards in all schools.
“In university admissions, no applicant should ever be disadvantaged because of his or her parents’ choice of school, and consideration to those from poorer backgrounds or less well-performing schools should not be at the expense of applicants with the same level of attainment from ‘better’ schools.
“ It would be as absurd to punish high-performing schools in this way as it is to assume all pupils eligible for free school meals are at state schools or indeed perform poorly.”