We must encourage the children of the poor to aspire to university

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The Independent Online

Even at the height of summer, the ramifications of the affair of Laura Spence, the comprehensive pupil turned down by Magdalen College, Oxford, are still with us. When Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, chose to make political capital out of her case, he undoubtedly alighted on one of the most entrenched social problems of the last half-century. Despite a huge expansion in the number of university students, the proportion from lower-income homes has scarcely risen.

Even at the height of summer, the ramifications of the affair of Laura Spence, the comprehensive pupil turned down by Magdalen College, Oxford, are still with us. When Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, chose to make political capital out of her case, he undoubtedly alighted on one of the most entrenched social problems of the last half-century. Despite a huge expansion in the number of university students, the proportion from lower-income homes has scarcely risen.

Official figures revealed today by The Independent show that pupils from the lower social classes are scarcely better represented at university than they were six years ago. Though their numbers have risen, their share of the overall higher education cake is up by less than 1 per cent. Equally, the share of places won by pupils from high-income homes is virtually unchanged. In some subjects, such as medicine and dentistry, nearly a third of all students come from high-income families. Figures for ethnic minorities have improved, but the numbers involved are tiny.

Part of the trouble is the result of a culture that undervalues education. The views of Margaret Thatcher, who extolled the virtues of entrepreneurs who leave school at 16, are reflected in many rural and inner-city homes where there is no university tradition and where the short-term imperative of earning a living overrides higher aspirations.

But cultures can be changed, and for years, universities have paid little heed to these unambitious young people and the schools they attend. They have been worse than complacent about the issue of access; they have simply ignored it. The term "ivory towers" has been well justified. Young people from poor backgrounds have sometimes been treated insensitively and no allowance has been made for those who have fought their way to reasonable grades despite teachers with low expectations. Many universities have been snooty about new types of vocational qualifications that are taken by some working-class students rather than A-levels.

Only now, in the face of sustained criticism from politicians, are they beginning to realise that they need to go out into their local communities to talk to pupils and to explain that university is for them. Suddenly, they are running summer schools, working with local teachers and promising to take applicants' background into consideration.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, was working quietly at the access issue for some time before Mr Brown burst noisily on to the scene. But both he and Mr Brown are to be congratulated on waking up the universities and the public.

So far, though, the money to back up the rhetoric is in short supply. There are a few summer schools for the brightest children who want to go to the best universities. There are small financial incentives for universities which come up with imaginative schemes to encourage applicants from poor backgrounds. Mr Brown's promise of "talent scouts" to scour the inner cities for clever students will cost a mere £20m.

The real question is not how to get a few high-achieving Laura Spences into Oxford, but how to encourage children who would not at present dream of taking a degree to aspire to attend university. And equally, to encourage universities to seek them out and welcome them through their doors.

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