The social composition of the undergraduate student population is a perennial policy chestnut in English higher education. Even in the 19th century, commissions showed due recognition of the obstacles faced by poor scholars in winning a place at Oxbridge. What is different about the contemporary situation is the state-sponsored widening-participation agenda, with its energetic construction of targets, monitoring of outcomes and distribution of rewards – even Times Higher Education’s University of the Year Award pays credence to the concept.
This is a policy agenda that has progressively widened its goalposts: from social class, to gender, to schooling, to race and ethnicity, to disability, to residence – where next? The problem is that the successful negotiation of one hurdle merely throws up another.
The recent interest surrounds one of the traditional targets – schooling – and the extent to which pupils of independent schools gain an unfair advantage in securing entrance to elite universities. Now selective statistics aid the pursuit of social equity. Some students educated in independent schools are less successful in their final university examinations than those educated in the state sector with lower pre-university qualifications. The policy message is self-evident: higher education institutions should show a degree of preference to state- school applicants by making them lower offers. This is presented not as positive discrimination but as the implementation of evidence-based policy.
However, ideological struggle is intrinsic to the policymaking process, with the intention that policy outcomes should maximise embedded values. This is not to deny that evidence, especially quantitative evidence, is relevant, but rather to argue that policy gurus naturally present the data that fit their policy preferences. If the evidence had demonstrated that independent-school students with lower pre-university entrance qualifications obtained better degree results than state-educated pupils with higher grades, would we be hearing precisely the opposite plea? We suspect not.
If discriminatory action is to be taken, how far should it go? Do you manipulate the admissions process only until you have the social outcomes you consider desirable? It is important, however, to recognise the potential policy contradictions. If, for example, the evidence demonstrated that certain relatively excluded social groups were the particular beneficiaries of independent schooling, what policy conclusions should follow? The additional conundrum is that degree results cannot be guaranteed, so while the evidence may be suggestive, it cannot predict individual outcomes.
Nonetheless, despite the apparent angst of the independent sector, this is clearly a phoney war. The obvious strategy for its schools is to ensure that those seeking university places apply to a number of institutions rather than targeting only one or two where the demand for places is strong. This may mean pointing some in the direction of less prestigious universities, but we are talking about marginal adjustments rather than a radical shift.
For the universities, the issue is how far should they tilt the balance in favour of state-school applicants? Or, to put the question differently, how are admissions tutors to know whether the independent-school applicant is a genuine diamond and not paste? No one is suggesting that the performance in finals examinations of privately educated undergraduates is a major problem. Moreover, it remains integral to the English commitment to institutional autonomy that universities select their own students. There may be research to support a minor crusade, but ironically there is no evidence to suggest that it should have a significant impact. We may indeed wonder therefore why this cause célèbre has reappeared.
Although we may be witnessing the periodic repetition of a phoney war, there is something deeply depressing about it. If independent schools do confer an unfair advantage with respect to some of their pupils, it needs to be explained how this is achieved, with the obvious implication that the state sector should have the resources to secure the same advantages for its pupils. It may be old-fashioned to say so, but universities should not be in the business of compensating for the failure of schooling.
There are two implicit premises in the current critique of higher education admissions procedures. First, entry should be determined by narrowly defined meritocratic criteria, accompanied by a compensatory mechanism for those who are less able to compete so effectively in these terms. Second, the hallmark of a successful undergraduate career is success in finals. Surely the purpose of higher education merits a broader perspective?