Change holes, not pegs to widen access

June 27, 2013

I do hope that your editorial is wrong and that we will not have to endure another decade of the argument about getting more state school pupils into so-called “top” universities, as I am fed up with it already and fear that I will never see its end (“Faint heart never won fair access”, Leader, 20 June).

As I see it, the essential issue is that a large proportion of young people from many backgrounds do not see Oxbridge and the like as relevant to them – and maybe they are right. No matter how much these universities try to persuade working-class youngsters otherwise, this will always be the case until the institutions themselves change by adapting to the needs they are being urged to meet in terms of programmes of study and curricula on offer, and by presenting a more relevant image in terms of language used and diversity portrayed. Instead of changing the pegs, perhaps we should change the holes.

On the fairly safe assumption that this won’t happen, our priority should be to get more students from diverse backgrounds into the universities that are best fitted to develop their interests and strengths, rather than focus on institutions that just want them to conform to theirs. If the holes won’t change, let us put the pegs in ones that fit.

Here’s a thought. Why don’t universities that have spent a fortune unsuccessfully attempting to recruit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds simply give all that money to those that have widened access successfully, are good at meeting those students’ needs and are truly committed to doing so? That would compensate for the loss of cash for widening participation and retention from Aimhigher and (probably) the “student opportunity” fund. It would also increase national participation rates from disadvantaged backgrounds and improve success rates, too.

Maybe an enlightened Office for Fair Access would accept this as the basis of access agreements and we could all then move on without endless and pointless arguments about the profile of students in some institutions.

Mike Goldstein
Streetly, West Midlands


The Russell Group is still failing to widen access, yet the press reports once again that the state-educated perform better than their private counterparts once accepted by a university.

In the case of Oxbridge, the fact that it clings to a college-based application process remains a major impediment to efforts at outreach to state-educated students beyond the Home Counties. While some colleges have gone a long way to accommodate students from state schools, many remain hopelessly skewed towards the independent sector, the white and those living in the South of England.

College-based undergraduate admissions should be replaced by a centralised system based on subject and department. This would bring Oxbridge into line with the normal Ucas system and go a long way to making the application process less intimidating for the state-educated, the poor and those living beyond the borders of Berkshire.

The bizarre ordeal of choosing four colleges or leaving it to “the pool” would be abolished for good, along with the much-feared grilling by college tutors. This would be replaced by interviews conducted by departmental academics similar to those used to select graduate students.

The system would also filter out the time-wasters mainly attracted to the idea of attending a “posh” or famous college. Those accepted would be assigned randomly to any college with available room.

Such changes would focus the application process on the rigours of an Oxbridge degree programme, not ivy-clad walls. After all, the colleges are now mainly halls of residence, not the seats of learning they were in Victorian times.

Anthony Rodriguez
(Graduate of Oxford and Cambridge)
Staines, Middlesex

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