Kick your door open

June 22, 2001

Give a university place to everyone from a poor area who makes the grade, suggests Tim Leunig

One year ago, chancellor Gordon Brown provoked a big row about university admissions when he said it was "an absolute scandal" that Magdalen College, Oxford, did not offer a place to comprehensive-educated Laura Spence. This brought a defensive response from the top universities, who say they are trying to open up their admissions systems. I believe a more radical solution is needed - one that would guarantee a university place for comprehensive students who get the right grades.

In the Laura Spence case, top universities made their defence by arguing that they are statistically as likely to admit state-school applicants as fee-paying ones and that they are working to attract more applicants from non-traditional backgrounds - by encouraging undergraduates from state schools to try to persuade other state-school students to apply and by running summer schools that give a taste of university life.

But the statistics still show that state-school students with three A grades at A level are 40 per cent less likely to apply to a top university than are fee-paying school students with equivalent grades. And elite universities get very few applicants from poor areas: fewer than 3 per cent of undergraduates come from council estates.

Anthony Smith, president of Magdalen, recently outlined another defence:

"Very able working-class children will come forward in larger numbers only when the level of encouragement provided by family and school improves." As the first person in my family to go to university, I know that such encouragement matters. But universities can do little to change parental and school attitudes. If we are serious about encouraging more working-class applicants, we can do a lot more.

I suggest that we make a blanket offer to everyone, either at a particular school or at a suitable group of schools, saying that if any student studying there gets our institution's standard offer, we will admit them. No ifs, no buts. All they have to do is ring us after they get their grades, and we will admit them for any subject for which they have a suitable background. We would trumpet such a scheme so that everyone in that area knew about it.

Here at the London School of Economics, for example, we could make this offer to every state school in the London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney and Islington. According to figures from the Department for Education and Employment, only 72 students in all of these six boroughs combined got 25 points or above in their A levels last year.

London is distinctive in that it has entire boroughs from which few students ever make it to elite universities, but most cities have pockets of educational deprivation. Other Russell Group universities could look to smaller areas or to individual schools nearby.

There is always a danger that a scheme that appears to favour one applicant over another will run into opposition. But this scheme does not offer one group lower entry standards, nor does it set a quota that must be filled. Given this - and the fact that shamefully few people from these backgrounds will qualify - extensive opposition seems unlikely.

But the scheme would make a difference to those people unsure about whether an elite university is for them. And it would make our commitment to excellence, regardless of background, unmistakable. Prospective working-class students would be sent an unambiguous signal that we want them at our universities. No politician could ask for a greater commitment to getting these people into our universities.

Indeed, having demonstrated our commitment, we could legitimately ask Mr Brown why fee-paying students are seven times more likely than state-educated ones to get three A grades at A level, and why just 72 students in state schools in six London boroughs got the grades needed to go to a top university.

Tim Leunig is lecturer in economic history, London School of Economics. He has previously served as tutor for admissions in economics at Royal Holloway College, and was jointly responsible for undergraduate admissions in economics and management at Trinity College, Oxford.

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