Reduced to tiers

March 14, 2003

Stop tinkering with entry requirements for state pupils and improve their education, says Ben Martin

The government is understandably concerned that the proportion of state school students entering higher education is not high enough, especially in leading universities. To improve this, it has proposed "benchmarks" with an "access regulator" to monitor progress towards them. The presumption is that this will result in a considerable increase in overall numbers of state school pupils entering higher education.

To achieve this, some universities have begun making lower A-level offers to state school pupils. There is some evidence to justify this approach. An analysis of degree results by researchers at Warwick University showed that students educated in independent schools were slightly less likely to obtain good degrees than those with similar A levels from state schools.

It is quite easy to model the impact if the approach adopted by Bristol University and others were pursued more widely. Suppose a leading university that previously recruited 60 per cent of its entrants from state schools makes lower A-level offers (say, three Bs rather than three As) to its applicants to improve its proportion to 70 per cent. This additional 10 per cent is recruited from the entrant pool for the next "tier" of universities, while 10 per cent of privately educated students get displaced. Universities in that next tier must then accept those "displaced" students (with three As) or face legal challenge for engaging in greater positive discrimination than is warranted by the evidence. To move towards their "benchmark", they make lower offers (three Cs) to state school pupils while rejecting privately educated pupils with three Bs. The latter are, in turn, displaced to the third tier, and so on throughout the university system.

A simple model suggests that if all universities were to make A-level entry offers of, say, six points lower to state pupils compared with private pupils (that is three Bs compared with three As), this would increase the proportion of state school students in leading universities but decrease it in lower ranking universities. The net effect in terms of widening access would be to bring only an extra 1 per cent or so state school pupils into UK universities. (The figure is small because, in the lowest tier of universities, there are few students from private schools who could be "displaced" by making lower offers to state-educated pupils.) The model also shows that although 10 to 15 per cent of state-educated students could end up at a higher ranking university, up to two-thirds of privately educated students would then have to accept a place at a lower-ranking university, with a few being denied any place at all. Whether they would all accept this fate is doubtful. Growing numbers would presumably explore alternatives abroad. Such "exporting" of well-educated students must therefore be offset against the undoubted benefit of improving the proportion of state-educated pupils in leading universities.

One can argue that it is unrealistic to assume that all universities would follow the Bristol approach. Middle or lower ranking universities may not be in a position to exercise such a choice. Others may feel that their proportion of state-educated entrants is already above the benchmark. Yet they will still be affected by the actions of higher ranking universities in recruiting some of "their" state-educated pupils and in "displacing" privately educated pupils with good A levels to whom they must now offer places (or face legal challenge). They will confront a dilemma - whether to accept more privately educated entrants and thus raise their average A-level entry score but worsen their proportion of state school entrants; or to join in the process of making lower A-level offers to state school pupils.

How, then, can the government meet its objective of significantly increasing the number of state-educated pupils in universities? One way is through substantial growth in student numbers. However, expansion would have to be concentrated in leading universities if one is to minimise the risk of "exporting" increasing numbers of privately educated students.

Whether the government would be willing to pay for major growth primarily among leading universities is open to question.

Instead, a far more effective policy would be to concentrate on improving the quality of education in state secondary schools so that A-level scores move closer to those achieved in the independent sector. That would have much greater impact in terms of widening access than universities modifying entry requirements.

Ben Martin is director of SPRU science and technology policy research at the University of Sussex.

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