'So what is the bias in the system? It is simple. It is

October 26, 2007

John Denham is a highly intelligent and very decent man. He was one of the few ministers to seemingly throw away a ministerial career at the time of the ill-judged attack on Iraq. Nonetheless, his recent attempt to paint the so-called elite universities as guilty of bias against less well-off students is just silly. There is, of course, a form of bias that runs throughout the educational system; we’ll get to it in a moment. But it’s one that no new Labour minister dare mention.

Let’s start with the Sutton Trust, which can never make up its mind if the Russell Group is biased against state-school pupils or not. Its press releases always suggest bias, its follow-up statements always disown the accusation. Is it true that private-school pupils can get into Oxbridge with lower grades than state-school pupils? Since 99 per cent of arrivals have three A grades, it seems unlikely. Is it true that there are 3,000 “missing” state-school students with the right grades? That also seems unlikely. Almost everyone who gets three As in the appropriate subjects applies to Oxbridge. There are some who don’t want the courses on offer and a lot who haven’t done appropriate - so-called academic - A levels, but that’s it.

One thing that has escaped comment is that as the number of A grades at A level has gone up so has the number of applications to Oxbridge from both the private and the state sectors. The increase from the maintained sector is almost 50 per cent. In 1999 there were 4,378 applicants to Oxford University from the maintained sector, and in 2006 there were 6,000. Does Oxford get credit for the increase? Not likely. Should it get credit for the increase? Absolutely not. Although Oxbridge spends millions of pounds on access initiatives, it is all in the demographics. Oxford applicants are a random sample of prospective students who are going to get three As in the appropriate “academic” subjects; that yields a 57/43 split between state and private UK applicants. It is entirely predictable that, while the number of applicants has gone up, the proportion of maintained-sector applicants has remained almost exactly as it was: 56/44 in 1999 and 57/43 in 2006.

The system may disadvantage state-school applicants in subtle ways. The Sutton Trust and others don’t sufficiently appreciate the full horror of league tables and a focus on indicators such as A-level points and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff. A school looks better if a student gets two As and two Bs than if the same student gets three As; but the student will miss out on the standard Oxbridge offer with the first set of grades. It’s not state schools alone that reduce their students’ chances by putting them in for too many A levels, but I suspect they are less likely to appreciate the total uninterest in A-level points and the Ucas tariff that prevails among selective universities and to be more concerned than private schools with their league table showing.

The Institute for Public Policy Research is an organisation I much admire, but it, too, shows every sign of making all the usual errors. It’s got off to a bad start by confusing what Oxford set as its target - applications - with what Cambridge University set as its target - admissions. In fact, it takes no research at all to come to the conclusion that Oxford and Cambridge will miss their targets for the foreseeable future. Both universities were foolish to give hostages to fortune in the way they did. It was obvious all along that if the proportion of A grades in “academic” subjects awarded to students from the private and public sectors stayed as it was, neither could make good on their promises. Both spend a great deal of money sending out ambassadors to persuade more state schools to send applicants; both spend a lot of time and money on summer schools - something else that seems to have escaped the IPPR’s attention. That’s why they get just about every plausible applicant from both the maintained and the private sector.

So what is the bias in the system? It is simple. It is called money. It purchases advantage for your children, from antenatal health through to quality of early years social interaction and ending with a choice of schooling. In the US, SAT scores correlate with parental income; if Oxbridge abandoned their admissions procedures and simply took the top 7,000 students on their raw A-level scores in “academic” subjects its social-class profile would be more skewed than at present. If it wasn’t so initially, it would be within a couple of years as well-off parents hired tutors to crack the system. Mr Denham is right: higher education is biased against the hard-up. But he belongs to a Government that has encouraged the idea that buying advantage is one of the natural rights of middle England; complaining about inequality while doing everything one can to promote it is just incoherent.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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