Lowering entry requirements to allow poorer pupils greater access and improve diversity at the UK’s most selective universities risks “setting them up to fail”, the leader of the Russell Group has warned.
Speaking on a panel debate, "Diversifying the elite: the responsibility of universities?", hosted by social mobility thinktank Reform, Tim Bradshaw warned that taking a contextual admissions strategy “too far” would ultimately result in increased dropout rates and “added pressures on society” in the long term.
His comments come in response to calls made by Durham University academics – and echoed by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust last year – for a revised admissions system to be implemented, whereby students from poorer backgrounds who achieve three Cs at A level are accepted on to courses that would normally demand As.
Meanwhile, new research from the Social Market Foundation has revealed that half of white working-class and black British students in England get into university with vocational qualification such as BTECs, not A levels.
The thinktank is calling on ministers and the new Office for Students to do more to help those who study BTEC courses gain places at university and other higher education providers.
Speaking at the Reform event, Vikki Boliver, a social scientist at Durham University, said the revised admissions strategy could be even more effective if universities such as Oxford sought to drop grade expectations for its most socially disadvantaged applicants by “five, even six grade boundaries”.
Referencing the gap between the number of rich and poor pupils admitted into the country’s highest-ranked institution last year, she added: “The best thing we can get Oxford to do for this year’s admissions cycle is to start flexing that confirmation point for kids who have missed their grades from certain backgrounds. A simple tweak to the system will have a big result.”
The University of Bristol, another Russell Group member, made headlines in December 2016 for a similar scheme allowing lower entry grades for bright pupils hoping to apply to the university from disadvantaged areas in the region.
Speaking at the debate, Professor Boliver and former education minister David Lammy both argued it was an “equally heroic” achievement for poorer pupils to receive Bs and Cs at A level as it was for their more privileged peers to score an A.
But efforts to improve access to higher education across the UK comes as a “shared responsibility”, with “no silver bullet” for best practice, Dr Bradshaw said.
“I’m not going to stand here and say it’s just the universities – it is the wider society as well,” he told panel members, adding "we’re not complacent”.
“There are still people dropping out who shouldn’t be," he said. “But I think the challenge is if you widen this whole contextualisation too far in terms of dropping five or six grades…yes, you could probably do that in some areas, but could you do it across the board? No I don’t think so.
“I think all you will end up doing is setting up pupils to fail and that will increase dropout rates…[imagine] the pressures on society that might bring.”
It was therefore unlikely that the contextual admissions practice seen at Bristol would be introduced elsewhere, he added.
Mr Lammy responded that “systemic change means ‘fessing up to privilege’”. “If we’re serious about this we need to privilege other children,” he said. “Privilege the child in Tottenham. Privilege the children on free school meals...if we are serious about this agenda.”
The MP for Tottenham accused the University of Oxford of “social apartheid” last year, after it emerged that nearly one in three Oxford colleges had failed to admit a single black British pupil in 2015.