So Nick and Dave are at it again – and I don’t just mean embarrassing slips of the tongue (it’s got to the stage with Nick Clegg that it’s just amusing watching him squirm when he puts his foot in it (again!)– this time because he automatically thought the length of the school year for EMA purposes was 31 weeks – which is correct, but only if you attend a school in the private sector- the state sector school year is 7 weeks longer). No, they’ve fallen back on the use of the “easy target” – this time in reference to the number of black students admitted to Oxford.
As someone who has worked in widening participation for the past four years and like many people in Cambridge, I am obviously keen to see more bright students from under-represented backgrounds get the opportunity to study at Cambridge or Oxford. As a first-generation law graduate labelled by some student journalists as the “free school meals kid” (think milky bar kid, but poor) and intending to enter the legal profession, with an interest in politics, I am also very keen to see more students from ethnic minority and poor backgrounds make it into these top professions. Under-representation, however, does not automatically mean that the institution is the one to blame.
Let’s look at the issue of wealth. On average, the University of Cambridge admits around 22 students each year who were eligible for free school meals. This is out of just under 3500 UK students admitted each year. Cue shouts of “shame on Cambridge – Cambridge obviously hates poor students”. At first glance, those numbers do look rather damning, but if you look at the issue of educational achievement amongst the poorest students on a bigger scale (think mosaic as opposed to postage stamp), the picture looks rather different. In 2008, only 160 students who were eligible for free school meals achieved 3 As nationally – that is out of around 30,000 students nationally who achieved AAA.
David Lammy has recently waded into the debate and helpfully draws comparisons between Oxbridge and the likes of Harvard and Yale. He mentions the fact that at Harvard (which he actually calls Yale), ‘no one with a household income of under $60,000 [pays] a dime in tuition or cost of living’. He seems to be suggesting that Oxbridge should do the same. Harvard’s financial support costs “a record-breaking $160 million”, which, when roughly converted to pounds, is about the same amount of money that will be generated when every single home undergraduate is charged £9000 a year (£95 million). Yes, Oxbridge have their endowments, but they are peanuts when compared to their Ivy League counterparts. The other way in which Harvard et al get their income is by charging the other 80% of non-eligible students much higher fees ($56,000 a year), and the average parental contribution is $11,400 per year per student. So unless he is all of a sudden advocating removing the cap on fees (which I sincerely hope he isn’t) or unless he knows of a huge pot of money that no-one else has found, it is rather unrealistic to assume that Oxbridge can all of a sudden do financial support the American way.
Lammy also seems to imply that Oxbridge should again ‘do as the Americans do’ by writing to every student from low-participating neighbourhoods who gets, for example, 3 As at AS Level. On the face of it, it sounds like a great idea – invite them along to an open day, give them details about how to apply, maybe even offer some e-mentoring. But like all ingenious plans that have yet to be enacted, there is a fundamental flaw – how exactly are the universities supposed to know which individual students from these backgrounds have got these high grades? Knowing which areas are ‘low-participating’ can be done quite easily – but should it be based on where the student lives or where they go to school? What if the school is high-achieving, but the local area isn’t? Or vice-versa? Do you break it down even further to students from certain backgrounds in that area? Do you target the bottom quintile or anyone below the national average? That issue aside, the main difficulty comes in universities actually knowing the results of all individual students and this is because of a little piece of legislation that David Lammy should be quite familiar with – the Data Protection Act. I can only presume that he thinks that exam boards would be the ones to provide the information – but, without going into lots of detail, I can’t see how they could get around the Act. So again – unless he knows something we don’t, it’s a bit unfair to expect Cambridge and Oxford (or indeed any university) to facilitate the breaking of the law, even if it is in the name of access.
Divergence over – let’s get back to the issue of the week – ethnicity. As with students from poor backgrounds, there is again an issue of prior academic achievement impacting on university admissions. But this can’t just be labelled as a general “ethnic minority” issue. For example, if we look at Black students – UCAS data shows that fewer than 9% of Black students achieved 360 UCAS Tariff points or more (as opposed to 33% of Asian students). Parting from Clegg and Cameron, I’ll provide a bit more context – this means that Black students account for just 1.2% of degree applicants who secure AAA at A Level.
On the issue of gender, what is the Government doing to encourage women to consider STEM subjects (apart from destroying the funding for arts and humanities)? With AimHigher finishing this Summer, what is the Government doing to ensure that all students get high quality, impartial and independent careers advice? So far – nothing. An Ofsted study released today showed that out of 200 female students, only seven of them were considering engineering jobs, and just 17 wanted a science-related career. Out of 1,725 pupils, only 164 girls embarked on “non-stereotypical work placements”. For someone who didn’t plan to go to university because it wasn’t ‘the done thing’ and because no-one I knew was talking about university, it says a lot that seven years later, there is still little support for students to help them consider their options beyond the stereotypical routes.
The question that I ask is – where are the politicians calling these damning statistics on A Level performance, careers advice and inequality of attainment at secondary and primary education “a disgrace”? Where are the politicians questioning why 80% of students eligible for free school meals don’t get the GCSEs that many sixth form colleges require, let alone universities? And where are the politicians who are asking why, in 2011, your socio-economic background is the biggest indicator of your likely educational journey? Positive discrimination, widespread use of differential offers and quotas are all methods that have been bandied around for years as a way of increasing representation of the under-represented, yet these would just be the plaster covering the bullet hole of educational inequality – everyone knows they don’t solve the bigger problem and everyone knows that we need bigger action, yet we put the plaster on anyway.
Universities have a huge role to play in raising aspirations amongst students from a younger age and encouraging applications from a diverse range of students, but they simply cannot do it alone. Politicians constantly saying “naughty old Oxbridge” without the slightest bit of context (or sometimes even evidence) does not help in the slightest – all it does it cement perceptions about the “type” of student who goes to these universities. Instead, they need to be tackling the issue of low attainment, often triggered by low aspirations, amongst those from under-represented backgrounds. This is not about forcing students down one route or another, or claiming that one type of educational journey is less worthy than other. Rather, this should be ensuring that decisions about what and where to study are based on what is best for the individual student, not their gender, race or family income. It should be opening doors rather than shutting them off and it should be about promoting the opportunities available, rather than trying to grab easy headlines.
So yes, I do want to see more money going into outreach work with those schools who never send any students to Oxford and Cambridge; yes, I want to see Cambridge using creative ways to reach out to bright students through engagement with charitable organisations and local community groups as well as schools; yes, I do want to see more universities looking at more than just raw grades and instead consider the potential of the individual by looking at the environment in which those grades were obtained. But it is also time for the Government to up their game – they’ve scrapped EMA, they’ve trebled tuition fees, they’ve scrapped AimHigher – so rather than the inevitable headline-grabbing finger-pointing at universities, let’s see their master plan for eradicating educational inequality – because frankly, it is their actions and their complete failure to deal with the bigger issue of educational inequality which are the ‘disgrace’.