This is why top universities are failing poorer students

This is why top universities are failing poorer students

It’s not exactly news that the UK’s best universities give a disproportionately higher number of offers to more privileged students. In 2015, 18 universities had student bodies made up of more that 20 per cent of privately educated students, despite the fact that independent schools make up less than seven per cent of the British educational system. Singled out for particular criticism in the UK have been The University of Cambridge and The University of Oxford who appear to have regressed in terms of the spectrum of students that they admit.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of students being accepted into these two universities from the top two social income groups - the children of doctors, lawyers, CEOs etc - rose from 79 per cent to 81 per cent. Those same two income groups make up just 31 per cent of the UK’s social background. Economic background isn’t the only questionable aspect of their admissions processes; the fact that Oxford initially rejected a Freedom of Information request regarding the number of black students that attend its colleges speaks for itself. But it’s not just a British problem; according to a study by Worth Magazine, of the 100 schools in the USA that send the most students to Yale, Harvard or Princeton, 94 are fee-paying. So why does this trend continue? And what more can universities be doing to reverse the situation?

In their response to the criticisms, top universities are quick to shift the blame onto the British school system and highlight the fact that fewer students from poorer areas attain the necessary grades. Yet, figures obtained by David Lammy MP show that between 2011 to 2014 over 850 students from one town, Wigan, gained the grades required to attend Oxford or Cambridge, yet only 29 were made offers. Further highlighting the North-South divide in these universities is the fact that between 2010 to 2015, they both also made more offers to students in five of the home counties surrounding London than they did to students in the whole of the North of England. While universities argue that students from poorer areas choose not to apply, there remains a disparity between the success rate of those who do apply. Mr Lammy's figures also show that students from the wealthier borough of Camden in London were over 20 per cent more likely to be offered an Oxford place than those who applied from Waltham Forest, less than nine miles away. 

It’s also worth considering what GCSE and A-Level results actually mean when you break them down on a more personal basis. Without intending to undermine the achievements of students in independent schools, there is a strong argument to be made that a straight-A kid from a state school in a poorer area has considerably higher academic potential than his privately-educated counterpart, having gained top grades despite substantially larger class sizes and often neglected school facilities, including reduced access to quiet study spaces. Students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have to juggle school or college with caring responsibilities or employment.

Where intelligence is clearly not lacking, what often is is confidence. Speaking from personal experience, I can say with certainty that there exists a divide in certain universities. Furthermore, it was abundantly obvious. Generally, the better educated the student was, the more they spoke. At my high school, if you wanted to do well then you kept a relatively low profile. However, quite the opposite is true in private schools.

Furthermore, when these state school students go to college and university, they carry their lack of self-assurance with them. So now imagine those same students approaching the infamous Oxbridge interviews, the ones designed to not only pick the best of the bunch, but to shine a light on the future leaders and statesmen on which these universities base their reputations. But assessors should have to consider factors beyond this, to see the potential in students and recognise a university's duty is to help them to develop.

In a system where top universities are charging higher tuition fees than ever before, there is also a tension between their commitments to take on more students from lower income backgrounds, to whom they must provide bursaries, and the financial implications that this has on the institution's own budgets. Universities are businesses after all, and the more students whose educations they're paying for, the less revenue they're generating.  That said, it would be unfair to say that universities are not investing in diversity schemes designed to widen their student selection and many have spent vast amounts of money on enacting outreach schemes targeting bright, potential students at a younger age. But these schemes are just that - outreach, and more needs to be done at the point of interview to counter class prejudices and make allowances for a student's background. It's not about giving a free pass to anyone with three Cs, but about making a more active effort to give a chance to those students from less privileged backgrounds who are making the grades. 

Of course, in an ideal world, rather than simply addressing this issue in universities, all of our young people would enjoy the standard and funding of education that independent schools do provide, and everyone would start from a level playing field. But with budget constraints unlikely to change any time soon, that isn’t going to happen. So for now, it is up to universities to start ensuring that the brightest young people from poorer backgrounds are given the opportunities they deserve. In maintaining that status-quo, we all miss out on the attitudes and insights of immensely talented working class individuals, and on their ability to enact social progression.