Imbalance of talent

August 20, 2004

State-school pupils are still underrepresented at leading universities, says Peter Lampl.

The debate about who attends our leading universities has attracted considerable interest in recent years. The Government hopes to enable more young people from less-privileged backgrounds to get to university and to support more of them in attending the country's leading universities.

Its opponents, including some in the independent sector, argue that this can be done only through "social engineering" - reducing the entry qualifications for children from state schools or giving them preference over their counterparts from the independent sector. Such suspicions have increased the controversy over proposals for a new director of the Office for Fair Access (Offa).

But, whatever the politicians' arguments, one startling fact remains. Each year, there are some 3,000 well-qualified young people attending state schools and sixth-form colleges who are not among the 30,000 students attending our dozen or so leading universities (based on the average of newspaper league tables), despite achieving grades as good as or better than the entry requirements to courses in those universities.

This suggests perhaps a lack of ambition or confidence, but certainly a potential waste of talent. The corollary is that far from the university entry system discriminating against pupils from the independent sector, it is acting in their favour.

There are 3,000 pupils from independent schools entering our leading universities each year who would not be there if higher-achieving state pupils were taking up their fair share of places. While 45 per cent of independent-school students who obtain the equivalent of an A and two Bs go to a leading university, only 26 per cent of state-school students achieving the same grades do so, and students from the independent sector are as likely to go to a leading university as students from the state sector who achieve two grades higher at A level.

To help inform the debate, the Sutton Trust's The Missing 3,000 report, published today, looks in some detail at these figures, which have been generated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The report also examines what happens to those "missing 3,000". We show that while they are still going to university, many are more likely to go to a new university, one of those designated post-92. Of course, there are many excellent new universities, and they provide many fine courses. Their graduates will often emerge with degrees that require more vocational achievement than their counterparts at traditional universities.

However, there are wider social reasons why this disparity is undesirable.

Our leading universities should fairly reflect the ability of the whole population, not just that of the minority whose parents can afford to send them to independent schools. Those who graduate from our leading universities have also been shown to be more likely to have better social networks, better jobs and higher salaries. Students who do well at school should not feel discouraged or lack the ambition to attend these universities because of their unfamiliarity, their distance from home or their high academic standards.

The Sutton Trust has been trying to break down these barriers through developing summer schools and other initiatives at Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities. The Government has adopted many of these ideas in its "Aim Higher" programme. But more needs to be done.

The admissions task force, which is chaired by Steven Schwartz, and of which I am a member, is due to issue its final report on admissions to higher education later this year. Addressing the disparities identified will be a critical part of its task. Issues such as the timing of A levels (or their replacement) need to be addressed. But universities need to play their part, too, by publishing key admissions statistics quickly to allow policy-makers to focus access measures where they are most needed. We still need to do far more to address such missed opportunities for so many.

Sir Peter Lampl is founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, which provides educational opportunities for the less privileged.

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