Poor show at access

July 18, 1997

"TAKE your positions now," proposes The THES (July 11) on the Government's pledge to widen access to universities.

I took my position some time back. A year ago, I was head of social sciences at a large comprehensive school in Leeds. Some of our students came from one of the poorest parts of the city. During my seven years in the job, I sought to persuade universities to admit more students from low income backgrounds, most of whom did less well in public exams than their more affluent counterparts. I had little success.

Old universities are keen to admit the high-flying state school students from inner cities, but pay little interest to the ones with shakier qualifications. In that context, The THES is right to report that "broadening social intake is hugely complicated by the correlation between A-level success and social background".

In my (admittedly limited) experience, admissions tutors from the old universities are not keen to admit students whose teachers predict low A-level passes. Nor do they show a readiness to take account of extenuating circumstances. I once wrote to an admissions tutor at a redbrick university to seek special consideration for a disabled student who wanted to study law. He was also poor. His earlier schooling had been interrupted by two lengthy hospital admissions for corrective surgery. I predicted A-level passes in the C to E range, and asked the university to give him a conditional offer. No dispensation was granted.

A couple of years ago, I checked the admission requirements of the 34 old universities which in 1995 offered full-time undergraduate courses in sociology. These varied from a low of CCC to a high of ABB-AAB (Oxford). Mid-way, BBC was common. How would my students fare if they wanted to study sociology at these universities? In most cases, not too well.

I therefore support the Council of Europe's proposal for a policy of linking state funding of higher education institutions to the socio-economic background of their students. This would encourage universities to "adopt" schools with high proportions of under-achieving, working-class students, offering the guarantee of a place in return for a "value-added" level of performance at high school.

Such schemes already exist but on an ad hoc basis, and many teachers are not aware of them. A national scheme would help. Extra funding would also enable universities to set up study skills programmes for less qualified students to run concurrently with undergraduate courses.

Only when all universities admit more less-qualified school leavers will the Government's resolve to widen the range of backgrounds in higher education have a realistic chance of success.

Paul Stephens

Visiting researcher Department of educational studies University of York

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