Leading Article: Let's not trip over the benchmarks

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The Independent Online

It is encouraging to see that the proportion of children from state schools going to university continues to rise, but the figures published today show that this increase is painfully slow. A record 87.8 per cent of young undergraduates to degree courses came from the state sector, compared to 87.4 per cent the year before. Universities have been busting their guts to lure young people from disadvantaged schools, at a cost of millions of pounds, and the best that can be said is that they are succeeding slowly. The percentage of students from the lower socioeconomic groups is up a little, too, as is the share coming from neighbourhoods that traditionally send few young people to university.

The Russell Group of leading research universities has been criticised for taking a relatively high share of students from independent schools and a relatively low share from state schools. These universities can boast this year that they have increased their share from state schools twice as much as the higher education sector as a whole. But they say – with some justification – that the benchmarks used to determine the shares of youngsters that universities should recruit are unhelpful and inaccurate.

For a start, the use of Ucas points to decide how many potential applicants are qualified for university places inflates the numbers, as it includes candidates on vocational qualifications who would not get on some academic degree courses. Second, the benchmarks take no account of subject mix. Students may get good A-level grades but choose "soft" subjects, such as media and film studies, that aren't taken as seriously by Russell Group universities.

And, finally, the benchmarks take no account of applications. One big problem is that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not apply to the leading universities. There is increasing evidence that this is to do with teachers in comprehensive schools and sixth-form colleges giving pupils little guidance about the subjects required by good universities. Indeed, they often give them scant information about which universities do well in the league tables, leaving the young people to choose their A-level courses and the institutions they are aiming for in a vacuum. As a result, they may choose to take a subject they like the sound of, only to find that they have ruled themselves out of getting into a highly rated university.