Time for a poor quota

May 19, 2000

Top universities should reserve places for pupils from deprived schools, says Andrew Pakes

The chance of going to a so-called "top" university is less than one in a 100 if you are from a low-income background.

Fee-charging schools make up 7 per cent of the school population yet they provide 53 per cent of Oxford entrants, 48 per cent of entrants to Oxbridge, the London School of Economics, University College London and King's College, London, and 39 per cent of entrants to the top 13 universities.

Higher education has come a long way since the elitist days, yet something clearly went wrong along the way. Students from low-income backgrounds have more opportunity to go to good universities than they did, but students from the upper social classes have even more opportunity.

Analysis of government data by the Sutton Trust shows that, based on entry qualifications - on the A-level scores school-leavers actually achieve - top universities should take 30 per cent more poor students and 30 per cent fewer students from private schools.

The ugly fact is that Britain's best universities discriminate against students from low-income backgrounds in favour of students from private schools.

The access challenge is now as much about which universities working-class students study at as about whether they study at all - and it is a challenge that demands bold action to force change.

I am not alone in arguing that this elitism should be tackled by using quotas. We should create a proportionate number of places at top universities and allocate them to schools in the most deprived areas, thereby levelling the playing field. This is not a suggestion for lowering standards but an argument for a fair redistribution of opportunity.

A look at the top universities' records on access begs the question: just how far have we progressed? Is there a true sense of ambition in making universities a force for social justice? Recent changes to the student funding system are not going to help the government achieve its aim of widening participation. Nor will small funding incentives for elite universities, which already take the lion's share of the funding pot, bring about change quickly.

While the seven schemes to boost the numbers of disadvantaged youngsters at university outlined by education secretary David Blunkett in last week's THES will certainly make a difference, he might have added another.

Already up and running is a scheme called Partnerships for Progression, which links targeted further education colleges and schools with universities and which trains student volunteers to encourage sixth-formers in disadvantaged institutions to try for a higher education place.

To make a difference, we should give a proportionate quota of places in the top universities to each of these "target" schools and colleges.

Equally important is the need for a proportionate quota for ethnic minority applicants so that we can address the shocking under- representation of Bangladeshi females and Afro-Caribbean males in our best universities.

No doubt such a suggestion will lead to uproar in the Russell Hotel when the 17 vice-chancellors of the Russell Group of top research universities next meet for tea. No doubt it will lead to the charge of "dumbing down" in the rightwing press. But this is not an argument for reducing standards. It is an argument for equality, guaranteed by a fair redistribution of opportunity; an argument for making the university sector a true force for social justice.

Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students.

* Should every Russell Group university reserve a proportion of its undergraduate places for students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds?

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