Patten: state schools to blame for Oxford 'bias'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lord Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, has blamed state secondary schooling for the institution's failure to reach government "benchmarks" aimed at admitting more pupils from non-fee-paying schools.

Speaking at the launch of a campaign to raise £1.25bn from endowments designed to give the university more freedom to "stand on its own two feet", he vowed that Oxford would never "connive" at lowering entry requirements to admit more working-class students.

He said that, when he attended the university more than 40 years ago, 12 of the 17 students (70 per cent) on his history course had been from state schools. This year the percentage for the university as a whole was 57 per cent – against 43 per cent from independent schools. "It isn't Oxford that's changed in its attempts to attract young people from maintained schools – what's changed is what's happened elsewhere in the education system," he said.

He singled out low aspirations of state-school teachers and the inability to persuade more youngsters to stay on in education after reaching the age of 16 as two key reasons for the failure to reach the benchmark. He warned that universities had had "far less independence and haven't been funded as well as they would have liked" under both Labour and Conservative governments.

"At the same time that governments have on the whole been pretty tight-fisted about higher education they have also introduced targets and policies which seek to push universities in the directions which are deemed by the department [for schools] or the Treasury... [to be] in the right direction," he added. However, he said that the university would not lower its standards for entry to recruit more youngsters from state schools. "We can't in higher education meet these problems by lowering standards in our universities."

Oxford could not admit state-school students with three Bs at A-level while asking those from the independent sector for three A-grade passes, he added.

Oxford was at the centre of controversy when Magdalen College refused to admit Laura Spence, a comprehensive school pupil from North Tyneside who was expected to get – and got – five A-grade passes. Gordon Brown, then the Chancellor, described the decision as an "absolute scandal". She eventually obtained a place at Harvard. Lord Patten described the Spence case as "the high water mark in idiocy" in government attempts to put more pressure on universities to take in more state-school pupils.

However, yesterday's funding campaign said the £1.25bn target was necessary to give university academics more "freedom" to run their own affairs.

The university has already been pledged £575m – including £25m from the Garfield Weston Foundation to go towards the development of the New Bodleian Library and £25m from the businessman Wafic Rida Said for the Said Business School. Campaigners will now be targeting alumni to come up with endowments – pointing out the amount raised by former Oxford students for their university is only between a quarter and a third of the amount raised by alumni at Harvard. The money, it was argued, would ensure Oxford could offer enough bursaries to make sure no student would be denied a place because of financial hardship.