There has been a recent upsurge in discussion about access to leading universities after Labour MP David Lammy’s disclosure that certain ethnic, regional and social-class groups continue to be highly under-represented at Oxbridge.
Acquiring the evidence is the easy bit, finding the solution is rather more difficult. This, we must remember, is after introducing countless initiatives costing billions of pounds over the past 20 years to improve matters.
The latest suggestion, in a Sutton Trust report, is that if universities lower offers to disadvantaged students by just two grades, this would lead to a 50 per cent increase in access to leading universities (“Call for ‘radical change’ in admissions at top UK universities”, News, 26 October, www.timeshighereducation.com). Another suggestion, from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian, is to introduce quotas for under-represented groups.
Our organisation, Villiers Park Educational Trust, a charity committed to improving social mobility through fair access, strongly disagrees with both contextual offers and quotas. These perpetuate the myth that those from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot shine during mainstream schooling. Too often there is an acceptance of satisfactory progress, when those with the highest potential in this group should be making it right to the top. This must be the case by the time they prepare for university and the workplace.
It is schools that must carry the responsibility for fostering excellence, by providing sufficient challenge in the everyday classroom for those with high ability, to enable them to develop a passion for learning, a passion for a particular subject and a determination to gain a place at a university that meets their ability and needs. Many schools achieve this; sadly, many do not. How might the situation improve if the money currently used by universities to encourage fair access were transferred to the worst-performing 1,000 secondary schools in terms of university access, with the sole purpose (measured by Ofsted) of improving destinations for their most able students?
Our track record of working with schools over many years shows what can be done. In 2017, of the high-ability, low-household income students we support in seven regions, 76 per cent went on to take a degree at university, 47 per cent at an institution in the Sutton Trust’s top 30 list.
Chair of trustees
Villiers Park Educational Trust