Participation is widening at Oxford and beyond

August 2, 2002

Leading universities have mended their ways since the controversy over Laura Spence, writes Peter Lampl

Two years have passed since chancellor Gordon Brown intervened in the debate about access to the UK's top universities and Laura Spence became a cause célèbre . That a number of initiatives were already in train was lost in the hubbub, although the chancellor's interest gave them new urgency.

Preliminary research by the Sutton Trust suggests that in those two years the proportion of students from the state sector admitted to top-ranked universities has increased by 4 percentage points. That is a good start, but look closer and it is evident that much remains to be done.

In May 2000, we published Entry to Leading Universities , based on admissions data for British students for the 13 top universities as defined by average rankings in four national newspapers. In 1997, entry to these institutions from the state sector was 62 per cent, compared with a benchmark of 73 per cent based on A-level performance. In 1999, the last year for which official statistics are available, the figure was 63 per cent, compared with a benchmark of 74 per cent. So after two years the gap was still 11 percentage points and independent schools were still significantly overrepresented - at 37 per cent of the intake compared with a benchmark of 26 per cent. Therefore, an independent-school pupil was eight times more likely to attend a top-13 university than a state-school pupil. For the top five, entry from the state sector in 1999 was still 54 per cent compared with a benchmark of 69 per cent, a massive 15-point gap, unchanged since 1997.

The analysis stops in 1999 and official figures are always two years out of date anyway. But it is still possible to form an impression of the current state of play. The trust has obtained the latest admissions figures from six of the 13 leading universities - Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, Oxford and St Andrews. These statistics come with a caveat: there are significant differences among the six institutions and their internal data are not necessarily directly comparable with figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Nevertheless, we believe that they are indicative - and encouraging. Figures suggest that the tide has begun to turn in favour of state-school applicants. In 1997, 58 per cent of admissions to those universities came from the state sector. By last September it was 63 per cent, with the biggest jump occurring since 1999 - from 59 per cent to 63 per cent. Assuming a similar trend in the other seven universities, admissions from the state sector may have increased from 63 per cent to 67 per cent, compared with a benchmark of 74 per cent.

Oxford, the target of Mr Brown's intervention, has transformed its admissions. In 1999, 48 per cent of young entrants came from the state sector; by 2001 it was 53 per cent. This was due to an increase in applications but also, crucially, to an improvement in the acceptance rate for state-school applicants.

I like to believe that the trust has played a role. Along with other initiatives, we are funding summer schools at Oxford for the sixth year running, attended by more than 300 students and 120 comprehensive-school teachers. Building on this, more government cash is available for access, and this year the university is spending £1.4 million, a figure that does not include individual college projects.

In 1997, when we sponsored our first summer school for state-school students whose parents had not attended university - with just 64 students - we were blazing a lonely trail. Now we sponsor a dozen summer schools for more than 1,000 students. Picking up on this initiative, the government has for three years been funding its own scheme, targeting students from inner cities, with 6,000 places available at 60 universities.

From the perspective of our five years of work, there has been considerable progress in widening participation, with increased urgency and focus since the chancellor's intervention. Nevertheless, the admissions system still needs fundamental reform. Moving from a predicted A-level to a post-qualification system would increase the chances of bright students from non-privileged backgrounds. And with increasing numbers of students attaining three or four As at A level, we need a complementary aptitude test to help universities make their selection. With the spectre of debt deterring many students, ensuring well-targeted support for the least well off, and fees closer to full cost for the richest, is a priority. Changes in the curriculum can also encourage better access. But above all we need a revolution in expectations. From the end of primary school it is vital for teachers to begin dispelling the myth that our top universities are "not for the likes of us".

Peter Lampl is chairman and founder of the Sutton Trust: www.suttontrust.com

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