National Disgrace? It depends what you’re referring to.

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’.

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10 Responses to National Disgrace? It depends what you’re referring to.

  1. Will Knock says:

    Great blog post Andy.

    That said, I think that as with the rest of the piece, your conclusion needs to broaden from just ‘the government’. It’s unfair – to an extent – to lay all the blame at coalition’s door when it’s likely that tuition fees would still have risen and AimHigher would still have been scrapped by a Labour government. So it’s not necessarily a party political issue.

    Obviously, the case is slightly different with EMA. There are certainly indications from Darling et al that it wouldn’t have lasted indefinitely. But I do believe – even as a dirty Tory – that we should have continued EMA until the school leaving age is raised, at which point an incentive to stay in education would quite frankly seem daft.

    I think as well there’s another big issue that you don’t address, the age old chestnut of subject choice. And this is something that was a problem even with AimHigher as you and I both know. Whatever happens, I agree that something has to be done about IAG in schools if we’re to continue see wp rates improving.

  2. Thanks for your comment Will – I accept the point about that Labour would probably have done much of the same (they started the cuts which led to universities feeling the need to charge 9k) (and just for anyone else reading it – no I’m not an opportunistic Labour member trying to stick the boot in to the coalition – for my sins I’m actually a very disillusioned lib dem member!) but the challenge was specifically because of the fact that EMA, Aimhigher etc are going yet there are still no solid proposals for replacements for Aimhigher (except for saying universities need to take over the work)

    I really wanted to include IAG and subject choice in more detail in the blog but as it’s already 1500 words long I was worried that no-one would actually read it if it got longer than my weekly law essays! I did a blog post back in 2009 on the very issue which I will update (some bits are a bit too generalised) and add to the new blog later – http://andyforaccess.blogspot.com/2009/02/choices-choices-choices.html

  3. Jack Haynes says:

    Will, Andy,

    Maybe I’m just hopeful, but I think the post doesn’t actually invite any discussion of party-political issues. It mentions Clegg and Cameron (and also mentions Lammy, a Labour MP), as they are the politicians to have opened up the discussion this week, but after that it uses the term Government. Never coalition. And if this term isn’t to be used, then I don’t know what is. Maybe “all the Governments past present and future”. But that’s just unwieldy.

    I think the point of the post (which is really great, by the way, Andy) is that it is the efforts and perhaps attitudes of the Government and all politicians which need to be adressed. It isn’t party-political.

  4. Jack,
    Thanks for your message – I’m glad that’s how it came across to you because that was my intention.

  5. Tobias M says:

    This is an amazing blog post, Andy. Congratulations! I hope you think of publishing it, or an abridged version.

    The most astonishing part, really, is how apt your criticism would apply to other advanced economies, and the absolute lack of good political candidates using research to back up their policies. I realize that this is primarily aimed at the British and particularly English universities, but it applies to the situation of many students in Europe, Canada and the United States as well. In regards to the question of funding, I think that you’ve touched on a key issue since endowments play such a massive role in the management of a university’s finances and admissions protocols. This in turn puts a higher pressure on them to accept the results from standardized testing, which show almost no indication for environmental factors.

    But most importantly, I’m thankful that you support access, and that you are capable of seeing socioeconomic background as the primary deterrent here. I personally fear that a lost generation is likely to appear in the advanced economies, amongst a series of groups of immigrant families whose low income and either lack of, or unrecognized labor skills (degrees from foreign universities for example), are kept from funding their own children’s education on par with the middle classes.

    There are those of us who regardless of political affiliation have supported reasonable reforms with regards to access for education etc. who are simply ignored for the sake of special interests. But I wonder if these interests are even real today and whether or not the stakes simply aren’t high enough for politicians to get their hands dirty with issues of significance beyond glamorous front-page appraisals.

  6. Sarah Ebner says:

    This is an extremely good blog Andy. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention. Politicians from all sides seem to love using Oxbridge to point-score, which is incredibly frustrating. I wish they would delve at least a little deeper.

  7. Marion Talbot says:

    Hi Andy, just wanted to say this is a really good article.

    Marion ( Kate’s mum)

  8. David Lammy says:

    “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.”

    Firstly, Harvard spends the “record breaking $160 million” in a vast country that is five times more populous than our own. A similar, comprehensive outreach programme for Oxford and Cambridge can be devised at both a lower proportionate and overall cost than Harvard’s, which I don’t think your initial analysis reflects.

    Secondly, American Universities do have large endowments, but so do Oxbridge Colleges. Trinity College (Cambridge), which has one of the poorest records on access, alone has an endowment of over £750 million – including freeholds to the Port of Felixtowe and Cambridge Science Park. That the sum of the constituent colleges combined does not have even a penny more to spend on their access programmes is a fallacy.

    Thirdly, money is of course a limitation to any ambition. But if we agree that Oxford and Cambridge should at least aspire to provide as comprehensive programmes as the Ivy League, then why does Oxford, for example, fritter money on ‘outreach’ at Eton, Marlborough and St.Paul’s? If resources are limited, at the very least concentrate them where it matters. Spending time and money on multiple information and guidance events at public schools whilst many urban state schools have never received a prospectus belies the disdain they have for widening access.

    Even if you do not believe Oxbridge has the resources to pursue a carbon copy of the Ivy League access programmes, there is a wider point of comparison. Why shouldn’t we show how similar institutions can invest in comprehensive access schemes and contextualise examination results can yield excellence (and if you believe almost all of the ranking systems, excellence at a higher level than both Oxford and Cambridge)? From my discussions with both universities, their reluctance to contextualise their applicants is their fear of ‘dumbing down’. The situation in America is the counterexample.

  9. David Lammy says:

    “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.”

    There are a few points to make here:

    1) The point of “who” is not a stumbling block at all – that’s a deliberative process that any access scheme goes through.

    2) I think you’re interpreting the letter writing point too narrowly: making any contact whatsoever communicates to bright students that Oxford and Cambridge are open to them and that their applications are wanted.

    Regardless:

    3) Universities do have access to grades through UCAS (which all Universities own and have access to their data). If Oxford and Cambridge wanted to contact every person currently taking a gap year who achieved 3 As in their A Levels, they can.

    4) Writing to individual schools (who will know their pupils grades) and asking to pass on individual letters to those students is one way of getting letters through. Asking exam boards to pass on those letters is another (Cambridge do own one of the main exam boards – OCR). If schools are unwilling to allow Oxbridge (and others) write to their students after they have received their AS Level grades, then I will be the first to pick up the phone and fight the University’s corner.

    5) In the long term, the government, judges and civil servants can be surprisingly pragmatic when it comes to facilitating something that all agree to be “good”. A government that is on the back foot on issues like social mobility and fair access will bend over backwards if either institution wants to better engage with under-represented groups and amend legislation accordingly.

  10. David Lammy says:

    “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.”

    Again, a few points:

    1) No one has ever claimed that Oxford and Cambridge are solely at fault for the lack of social diversity in their student population. No one suggests schools are perfect, or that there aren’t any failing schools or bad teachers. But neither is it plausible that there is nothing more the Universities can do to remedy the situation. Again, I return to America, which is plagued by more failing schools and greater inequalities, yet the Ivy League continues to successfully bring scores, not a handful, of underprivileged students to their doors.

    2) I appreciate that the present government is not particularly helping either university by scrapping the only nationwide access scheme and EMA whilst trebling tuition fees.

    3) However, if the scrapping of AimHigher means that the Universities alone will be the sole purveyors of access schemes, then it is only right that what work they do comes under renewed scrutiny.

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