‘Oxbridge obsession’ blamed for holding back social mobility agenda

A “narrow, Oxbridge-obsessed” approach to higher education reform will thwart attempts to increase social mobility, according to a new report by a group of new universities.

September 19, 2011

Million+, which represents post-92 institutions, claims the coalition government’s plans focus too heavily on sending poorer students to elite universities.

Ministers need to recognise the benefits enjoyed by the larger number of students attending modern universities, it contends.

In its report entitled Universities driving social mobility – Beyond the Oxbridge obsession – which is launched today, the Million+ warns that the government’s “limited vision of social mobility will yield only limited results”.

“There is also a real risk that an emphasis on ‘fair access’ to a few universities will reinforce old hierarchies rather than promote the government’s wider objectives of ensuring that talent and achievement are recognised and rewarded, whatever a person’s family background,” it says.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of Million+, said: “To date, ministers have been too focused on the progression of relatively small numbers of younger students from free school meal backgrounds and state schools to a relatively small number of universities.

“These are very limited aspirations and will do little to ensure the progress of people from groups traditionally under-represented in higher education – those from poorer backgrounds, those who are the first-in-family to go to university, black and ethnic minority students and mature and part-time students”.

The report highlights the policy of allowing universities to compete for students gaining AAB or equivalent in their A levels once maximum tuition fees rise to £9,000 in 2012.

It notes that 16,100 of the 54,600 students in England aged 16-18 who achieved AAB or better in A levels in 2010 (29 per cent) were at private schools even though only around 6 per cent of all pupils are at private schools.

A further 5,420 (10 per cent) of those achieving AAB were at selective state schools

Million+ also cites a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report published in June, which says students with lower A-level grades from state schools are likely to match or out-perform students from private schools with high A-level grades once they are at university.

Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and executive member of Million+, warned about the implications of the recent higher education white paper.

“As the proposals stand, the investment available to universities to promote social mobility and ensure a high quality student experience looks set to be eroded,” he said.

“These proposals will privilege a sub-section of students by transferring more taxpayer funding via the student loan system to universities with the most socially exclusive student profiles.”

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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