Leading article: Universities must be made to open their doors wider

Share

Today's higher education league tables (or performance indicators, as they are officially known) will make depressing reading for the Government. They show that the percentage of state-school pupils recruited to university has declined for the first time in five years.

On the face of it, this seems to support the view that some universities are only paying lip-service to the Government's drive to widen participation in higher education. The universities may be sending apostles into neighbourhoods which have, in the past, yielded few applicants, but state-school pupils are still finding it hard to get into the top establishments.

There may well be blame on the universities' side. When there are so many well-qualified candidates to choose from, university admissions officers may be less assiduous than they might otherwise have been at searching out those who would benefit most from the courses they have to offer.

But the Government must accept blame as well. If certain universities have been temporising, it is because ministers have moved far too slowly to use some of the key levers it has at its disposal. The first is the introduction of US-style aptitude tests for university applicants. This was recommended by the government task force on university admissions earlier this year. And in the United States these tests have led to top universities such as Harvard recruiting more students from deprived neighbourhoods.

So-called Sats are not the whole answer. Even in the United States there is criticism that good teaching or expensive private tutoring can improve scores. Pupils from poor schools may still be at a disadvantage. But with the performance of public schools and many comprehensives in this country so far apart, Sats deserve to be tried.

Yet it is only this November that the first pilot project will start in this country, and it is designed to last for five years. Contrast this with the speed with which the Government is introducing its academies programme to reform inner-city schooling, and the testing programme looks like a very poor relation.

The second area which is ripe for change is the timing of university applications. Few contest the idea that it would be fairer all round to base university recruitment on actual exam results rather than predictions. Post-qualification application to universities (PQA for short) would put all candidates in the same position.

It would also tackle the problem of low aspiration, where pupils in poor schools may be told by teachers or parents that the top universities are not for them, and it would counter any prejudice that teachers may unwittingly apply to predicting a pupil's grades.

As with the introduction of aptitude tests, however, the Government seems to be dragging its feet. A consultation paper is slowly doing the rounds of the education service while university vice-chancellors, as usual, defend the status quo. Next year, top universities will be encouraged to set aside some places for those whose grades are better than expected. But the universities are reluctant to do so - and anyway, such a feeble change hardly addresses the problem.

There would be great benefit, both to the individuals themselves and to the country as a whole, if the brightest, rather than just the best-educated, pupils had an equal chance of being admitted to the best universities. The Government is right to want to broaden participation in higher education. It has mechanisms at its disposal; it should use them.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
Forty per cent of global trades in euros are cleared through London  

The success enjoyed by the City of London owes nothing to the EU

Nigel Farage
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial