Access gap ‘not completely explained by grades’

At least a quarter of the “access gap” for “top” universities in three countries cannot be explained by academic achievement, a new report says

November 13, 2013

The report, to be presented at a Sutton Trust summit this morning, is by John Jerrim, lecturer in economics and social statistics at the Institute of Education, University of London.

It finds that children with professional parents are around three times more likely than those with working class parents to be admitted to Russell Group universities in England, Group of Eight universities in Australia and “highly selective” US public universities.

“Although academic achievement up to age 18 can explain a great deal of the socio-economic gap in elite university access, it does not completely remove it,” says Dr Jerrim in the report, titled Family background and access to ‘high status’ universities.

He adds: “At least a quarter of the difference in England, the US and Australia is not explained by academic ability. This suggests that (cost-effective) interventions between the ages 14 and 18 may play an important role in reducing socio-economic inequalities in elite university access in the future.”

The Sutton Trust international summit, on “access to leading universities”, will be opened by Vince Cable, the business secretary.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Access to elite universities is a real issue across the globe, and we hope that by discussing it at the summit, we can learn from each other on what can work to improve access for bright low- and middle-income students.

“This new research confirms that there are many able children either not applying or not being admitted to the best universities, and this is true internationally.”

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said in reaction to the report: “As this report shows the main reason pupils from disadvantaged background are less likely to go to leading universities is because they are not achieving the right grades.

“But students not only need good grades, they need them in the right subjects.”

She added: “Access is an issue for leading universities across the globe – there is no silver bullet to this entrenched problem. School attainment, advice and aspirations must all be dramatically improved if we are to tackle the real barriers to fair access.”

The Sutton Trust explained that in Dr Jerrim’s paper “measurement of academic ability in England is based on A-level achievement and a proxy Pisa measure”. In the US, “it is based on Pisa measures, quintiles of SAT scores, high school GPA and scores on a cognitive math test at age 18”. While in Australia “it is a Pisa measure and Tertiary Entry Rank”.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Apparently about 26% of A levels or equivalent are achieved at A or A* grades. The Russell Group universities in particular accept most of these students, yet typically only award 15% or so of Ist class Honours degrees. Maybe the staff effort needed to raise the large amounts of essential prestigious research funding is a partial cause of this seeming lack of value added to teaching performance. If so, perhaps an alternative strategy would be to concentrate resources mostly at the postgraduate level, except possibly for the very few universities enjoying exceptional private endowments.

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