The finding that there has been no progress in recruiting more talented disadvantaged students to Britain's elite universities is terribly disappointing. However, the report by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) – the university admissions watchdog set up by the last government – comes up with some interesting reasons for the failure.
Often in the past, as demonstrated by Gordon Brown's outburst over Oxford University's refusal to admit the former comprehensive school pupil Laura Spence, universities have shouldered the blame for the heavily middle-class composition of our top universities. But today's report shows that the picture is more complex and that much of the problem lies in the schools themselves. Too often, pupils are pushed into subjects at GCSE and A-level that make it difficult for them to win place at the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. This can be a result of the pressure from exam league tables as schools strive to improve their relative position.
The suggestion from Sir Martin Harris, director of Offa, is that there could be another method of ranking schools, such as showing the destination of its former pupils. Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, signalled his interest in such a move in education debates during the election campaign, so there should be no difficulty in introducing such a measure. Yet, in itself, this would not get to the bottom of exactly what subjects universities value (and do not value) when determining admissions. Universities need to liaise more with teachers at schools in the most disadvantaged areas so they can inform their pupils of the options they should aim for if they wish to seek places at the most competitive universities.
Another interesting feature of the Offa report is that the introduction of top-up fees appears to have been no deterrent for youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking top university places. There was a slight decline between 1995 and 2005 – the year before top-up fees were introduced. However, the line is now being held.
That suggests that increased support available for poorer students is having an effect and that should the official review of student finance being carried out by Lord Browne recommend a rise in the top-up fee cap, there is little reason to fear it would be a major deterrent to applications from the less well-off. What the bright but disadvantaged need is not a free university education, but better information.