Let's turn the spotlight on all our young talent

November 9, 2007

Future academic and economic success relies on inspiring students from all social groups, says John Denham. To say that there is a social bias in the intake of sought-after universities is to state a fact. It is not the same as claiming "elite universities (are) guilty of bias" (Alan Ryan, October 26).

This smokescreen - politicians are "silly", to quote Ryan - is often used to obscure real debate. But we must not lose sight of the issues at hand: how we all, including universities, find the most talented students.

No one could seriously argue that the current social bias across higher education and in individual institutions - including some of the most sought after - reflects a system that reaches all our most talented young people. And, while Ryan may be right that many can buy advantage in any walk of life, can we or higher education leave it at that? Should we just shrug our shoulders and say nothing can or should be done?

I accepted in my speech to Universities UK in September that efforts by Government and institutions to increase the number of poorer students in higher education lead some right-wing critics to make accusations of "social engineering", of putting dogma ahead of ability.

But striving for a university system that is more representative of society is not about narrow ideology, nor is it about achieving statistically satisfying solutions. It is about Britain's success in the world.

Universities cannot offer places to people who do not apply, and those they do admit must be sufficiently prepared to succeed. But the discussion of university responsibility cannot end there. In an increasingly competitive world, the prizes will go to those countries, education systems and institutions that overcome disadvantage to unlock the most talent in their societies, wherever it exists. We have one of the best higher education systems in the world. But it is not reaching all the talent out there.

The challenge is stark. We must harness all our available talent if Britain is to keep pace in the increasingly competitive world of tomorrow. It is in the interest of universities, individually and collectively, to identify and nurture our more able young people. If they do so, they will reap the benefits of having the most able students.

Any vice-chancellor should feel concerned if their institution is not fully representative of the talent our country has to offer. Those most anxious to be judged on a world scale should be the most concerned if, as the century rolls on, their institutions continue to miss out on the best.

Young people often start to form aspirations and begin making decisions about their educational futures relatively early on at secondary school, which is why the Government continues to fund programmes aimed at younger pupils. Universities have engaged in this work, in schemes such as Aimhigher, which gives students a taster of higher education through visits to campuses, mentoring and summer schools. In addition, universities are building relationships with schools and colleges in their areas through their own activities to help young people better to understand the opportunities a university education might offer.

In working together, we have made progress. Recent figures show that the proportion of young full-time first-degree entrants from lower social groups continues to increase.

Aimhigher and such schemes are essential in raising the aspirations and achievements of individual students. But there is more universities can do to support schools more fundamentally, so that the benefits last long after the individuals have left. We must do more to promote longer-term, deeper, sustainable relationships between the higher education sector and schools.

Last month, I launched a prospectus, alongside my colleague Lord Adonis, to encourage universities to sponsor academies and trust schools. The models used will vary according to local need; some universities will want to form one-to-one relationships with schools, others may choose to collaborate with other universities or employers to raise the standards across a group of schools. These groundbreaking partnerships will drive up standards across the board, raise aspirations of pupils, parents and teachers and support students applying to study for degrees. Many universities are moving in this direction, and I want to work with them to make it a success.

I want to build further on the successes of our higher education system, with universities playing a wider role in unlocking the talents of our young people. The arguments about how we achieve this are complex, and we need to follow a cool-headed approach that distinguishes between outcomes, causes and the plethora of factors at work. It is only then that we will keep sight of the real issues at hand.

John Denham is Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

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