England should follow Scotland on access to university

Evidence shows students from poorer backgrounds recruited on lower grades do better than the average student in their final exams 

Today the Scottish Funding Council announced extra places at leading Scottish universities for disadvantaged students and that these students would be recruited using ‘contextual offers’. 

This means that the most selective universities in the country will have hundreds of additional places reserved for young people from low income backgrounds and that those students will be able to get into university even if they did not meet the standard grades.

Where Scotland is leading, England should follow. Last week the Office for Fair Access argued that access to the elite universities in England has hardly improved in recent years despite lots of pressure from government and numerous initiatives, including fee waivers, scholarships and bursaries.

It is in this context that the IPPR Commission on the Future of Higher Education has just published its final report A Critical Path. We argue for a radical intensification of effort to open up access to the most selective courses. As in Scotland we call for the widespread use of lower offers by these institutions, so that an applicant is judged on their potential rather than just their A level grades. Evidence from Bristol and Oxford shows that students from poorer backgrounds recruited on lower grades do better than the average student at such universities in their final exams. 

As in Scotland we argue for additional places to be made available for such students by allowing these universities to recruit unlimited numbers of them. We also argue for existing funding to be shifted out of ineffective fee waivers and bursaries and put into outreach work with schools and colleges which is much more successful at encouraging young people to apply.  Finally we call for a more transparent system for allocating widening participation resource, by creating a ‘student premium’ of £1,000 which would paid to universities for every student from a disadvantaged background they recruited.

Perhaps most radically of all we call for a change in the philosophical approach to the access debate in English universities.  Rather than it being simply a question of social mobility, we call on higher education institutions to follow the best practice of the US Ivy League where universities actively seek to ‘craft’ diverse and representative intakes.  This is about fairness, but it is also about educating people so that they are properly prepared for the world we live in: we want our future leaders and professional elites to be educated in places that are representative of our wider society.

Although some argue that making lower offers in particular represents ‘dumbing down’ – it has long been the practice of the best universities in the United States, whose commitment to rigorous academic standards are unquestioned.  We are also clear that expanding opportunity is not just about fair access to the most selective university courses – which is why we call for a major expansion in FE provision of higher education and a widening of eligibility for part time loans.

We know that responsibility for young people’s attainment pre-18 rests mainly with schools and colleges – but our universities are public institutions and they too must play an active role.  If Scotland and America can do it – then why not in England?

IPPR’s report on the future of higher education was published on Monday and can be downloaded here.

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