Every few months universities are exhorted by politicians to enrol more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And every few months universities redouble their efforts to tackle the problem.
Even so, the number of disadvantaged students in highly selective universities has barely risen. Ten years ago, about a fifth of all students at Russell Group universities were from disadvantaged families and today the proportion is almost exactly the same. Eighteen-year-olds from the most advantaged social groups are six times more likely to go to highly selective universities than their disadvantaged peers.
It’s not as if universities haven’t been trying to close the gap. Almost all have extensive outreach programmes in deprived areas, several have adopted mentoring programmes or directly sponsored schools and a few have faced down the less sympathetic elements of the press by offering reduced entry grades to students from poor postcodes.
Yet nothing fundamental has changed. The gap between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers has not significantly closed and dropout rates of the latter continue to rise. What then should universities do?
A typical school in England will employ 18 strategies on average to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, the Department for Education tells us. Not all are equally effective. The most efficacious are small group additional teaching, improving student feedback and one-to-one tuition. A university whose school outreach doesn’t support at least one of these is not making the best use of its access money.
The best way to get more disadvantaged youngsters into university is help them get the necessary grades in the first place. And the easiest way universities can help them do that is to offer less well-off students the support their better-off peers take for granted.
A quarter of all 11- to 16-year-olds, and more than two-fifths of those in London, now receive some kind of extra tuition, according to the Sutton Trust. This "shadow education system" as the charity calls it, is widespread and growing. It’s not hard to understand why. There is a wealth of objective evidence to indicate that extra tuition boosts student performance. According to research charity the Education Endowment Foundation, one-to-one tuition can add an extra five months’ progress, with disadvantaged and low-attaining pupils making the most gains.
But unless schools are in a position to commission additional tuition themselves, it is support that disadvantaged students are usually denied. Their parents simply can’t afford it.
So why shouldn’t universities use their widening access funds to help pay for it? You would expect me, the head of an online tutoring company, to say that. But others have come to a similar conclusion. Many universities encourage their students to volunteer literacy and maths tuition to local schools. Others, like Birmingham University, have engaged organisations to deliver programmes more aligned with GCSEs and A levels. Involving students has an additional benefit – teaching others tends to sharpen undergraduates’ own learning skills.
To tackle disadvantage, universities have to understand how disadvantaged students need help. And that means building their confidence, working closely with schools and helping students with any gaps in their knowledge before they take their exams rather than trying to remedy any deficits afterwards.
Universities have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on widening access initiatives. They have not lacked ambition or inventiveness. But how many have been effective in the long term? Over three-quarters of our partner schools achieved record results last year.
If we want to see more youngsters from deprived backgrounds not only going to university but also making it through to graduation, we have to equip them with the necessary skills and grades. And the best place to do that is before they leave school.
James Grant is co-founder of MyTutor.