Elitist, exclusive, too posh... but we're changing, says Bristol

Bristol is one of six universities criticised for recruiting too many well heeled students from private schools. Now it is trying to attract more from disadvantaged state schools
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The Independent Online

Last week's official league tables, published at the start of the new academic year, had one or two universities smarting. But Bristol University - officially placed in the doghouse along with six other universities for failing to attract enough students from poor backgrounds - put its hands up. It was a fair cop, it said.

Last week's official league tables, published at the start of the new academic year, had one or two universities smarting. But Bristol University - officially placed in the doghouse along with six other universities for failing to attract enough students from poor backgrounds - put its hands up. It was a fair cop, it said.

Amazingly, Bristol was deemed even more élitist than Oxford and Cambridge, being found wanting on all three indicators used to measure access (the percentage of those from state schools, from low social classes and from areas sending few people to higher education). The others were Exeter, Reading, University College London, St Andrews, Oxford Brookes and the University of the West of England.

At the time, higher education minister, Baroness Blackstone, urged every university which was below its benchmark for participation to consider what more they could be doing to widen access. In reply, Professor Sir John Kingman, Bristol University's Vice-chancellor, agreed: "I think we have got to go on improving all the time. We want to have many more students coming from state schools."

As a top university - and one of the most popular in the country - Bristol has a relatively low proportion of students from publicly funded schools - 57 per cent, the same as University College London, though more than both Oxford and Cambridge. For years it has attracted well-heeled young people who failed to make the grade for Oxbridge: Jimmy Goldsmith's daughter, Jemima Khan, was a student in the Nineties before a dashing Pakistani cricketer swept her off her feet.

All of which may explain why Jeremy Paxman referred to it on University Challenge as the place where more students protest in favour of fox hunting than against tuition fees - a jibe which offends the university.

At the university's freshers' bash last Friday the Pandoras and Arabellas were much in evidence, if only because they were so glamorous, sporting gorgeous skin, highlights, designer trousers and the occasional pashmina shawl. According to Lucy Collins, president of the students union, there were too many of them. "It doesn't feel as though there is a majority of state-school educated people here," she said. "The private school students already have a network when they arrive. There is a bias here towards the South and towards London.

"I came from a state school in Coventry and during my first week I was always being asked what school I was from. If I had been able to say I was from Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies College, those asking the question would have been interested in me. As it was, they said 'Great, you went to a state school, your parents must be very proud of you'."

But Bristol University is changing and the new statistics from the Higher Education Funding Council show that the proportion of state school pupils has risen in the past year from 55 to 57 per cent. That is the beginning of a shift which the university is determined should continue.

Two years ago, following the Dearing report on higher education, it put in place a new policy to widen access. One newspaper derided it as "positive discrimination" and "dumbing down" but Bristol university insists it is doing no such thing. Spearheaded by a passionate Welshman, David Evans, who is a Pro-vice-chancellor and professor of mathematics, the university carried out some research into how differing groups of students performed in their degrees.

Crucially, they discovered that students from state schools performed better in the class of degree they achieved than those from independent schools, even though both groups entered with the same A-level grades. All in this case had three A grades. The more disadvantaged a school the students came from - in terms of average A-level points - the better those students did at Bristol.

That research was important because it gave hard evidence on which to base the new policy. It suggested, in effect, that it was advantageous to recruit from state schools because you could give their pupils more added value. "It was the sort of information that persuades our admissions tutors that they're missing out on recruiting the most talented pupils," said Professor Evans. "There's no way we could have said 'It's our policy to weaken student intake'. It had to be 'We're missing out on a lot of bright kids out there and we need to find them'."

That made the second strand of the initiative easier to implement: to carry the academic departments with them. It was relative plain sailing. The academics were keen to tap a much wider pool of applicants than they had before and the evidence on degree performance showed they should do so.

What happens now is that every application to Bristol is examined centrally before being sent out to admissions tutors in the departments. Applications from schools where the average A-level score is below 18 (CCC) are flagged up so that the departments know they are dealing with someone who is at a disadvantage. As a result they take special care with those applications.

Several other initiatives have been introduced as part of the strategy. The most long-lived is the Sutton Trust summer school whereby disadvantaged applicants are sought out. Bristol is one of four universities - the others are Oxford, Cambridge and Nottingham - which hosts a summer school each July. The Sutton Trust, run by the millionaire, Peter Lampl, chooses young people who come from disadvantaged schools (those with low average A-level scores) and from families without a history of higher education. All have to have good GCSEs, five at A or A* level.

The idea is to give them a taste of university life combining lectures with visits to pubs, the students union and the sports grounds - and giving them help in filling in UCAS forms and interview techniques. The summer schools have been a success. The young people love them, returning with massive hang-overs at the end of their week. And the evidence is they work.

Last year the summer school attracted 74 sixth-formers of whom 64 actually applied to Bristol. This term, 15 are showing up as freshers. That means the ratio of applicants to acceptances of those on the Sutton summer schools is four to one, compared with a ratio of 12 to one for applications to Bristol as a whole. You are three times more likely to get into Bristol if you come via the Sutton summer schools route.

The university works hard at turning these applications into places. Each Sutton application is flagged up. If a department rejects candidates, their papers are returned to Professor Evans who asks why they have been turned down and may suggest they are looked at again - or be interviewed. He draws satisfaction from the fact that not only are the results of the Sutton summer school initiative good but that applications are up from other students at the schools these students come from. That suggests they go back and spread the word that Bristol is a good university to apply to.

Another way that disadvantaged applicants are tapped is through the students union's access project. By going out and talking to local comprehensive schools, students try to persuade West Country sixth-formers to apply to Bristol. In addition the university has hired a schools liaison officer who is actively engaged in setting up links with local schools.

With some justification, the university says it is now doing what it can to turn around decades of not bothering about access. But it is not being helped by Government policy, says Sir John. "When we talk to schools and ask why no one is applying to university, they say the young people don't want to get into debt and can't cope without the maintenance grant. If the Government were really serious about widening participation, it would widen the difference between the money they're giving to students from the poorest families and the money they're giving to students from the richest families."

As it is, the richest families pay a mere £1,050 in tuition fees - but that is way below the real cost. The poor get full remission on fees but have to find the £6,000 or so a year which it costs to keep body and soul together.

Sir John believes that a properly funded and means-tested system - on the lines of ideas put forward by vice-chancellors of the Russell Group of top universities - would bring a lot of new money into the system and attract many poorer students to higher education. If those who currently pay £6,000-plus to educate their offspring at an independent day school were asked to pay the same amount for higher education, university funding problems would be at an end, he believes. Why shouldn't the Prince of Wales pay the full cost of his son's place at St Andrews?