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More room for the state-sector at uni

Posted by Tom Walker in

Wars of words have been waged in the past over candidate intake criteria and specifically whether or not they should be a function of a student's background. Many people in government believe that universities should aim to have a demographic of students that represents that of society, but is there true merit to the notion and is it a university's responsibility to address under-representation of the state-sector in higher education?

The 'Higher Education: the Fair Access Challenge' report published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in mid-2013 reviewed the extent to which UK universities have increased their intake of state-sector candidates and subsequently formulated recommendations directed at both universities and government to address the gap. A key point raised within the report noted that whilst participation rates in the most disadvantaged geographical areas increased by 30% between 2004/2005 and 2009/2010 those in the most advantaged areas are still three times more likely to participate in higher education. Further to this, there has been no improvement in participation at the most selective universities among the least advantaged young people since the mid-1990s and consequently the most advantaged young people are seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the most disadvantaged. According to the report, the odds of a state secondary school child who is eligible for free school meals in Year 11 being admitted to Oxbridge by the age of 19 is almost 2,000 to 1, versus 20 to 1 for a privately educated child.

Between 2002/2003 and 2011/2012, the proportion of state educated students attending a Russell Group university decreased from 75.6% to 74.6%,with representation from the UK's most disadvantages students (NS-SEC 4-7) declining from 19.9% to 19.0%. Somewhat surprisingly however, Cambridge and Oxford Universities both saw marginal increases in the proportion of state-educated students.

Table detailing percentage of state-sector and underprivileged students at each Russell Group university

Given that just over 7% of British children are privately educated, the fact that state-educated students are under-represented at university is undeniable. The notion for aligning the social mix of universities with that of society can be split into two arguments: justification based on the society's obligation to provide equal opportunity to each individual and justification based on society's benefit as a whole from increased intellectual capital.

Basing any argument on society's obligation to provide equal opportunity to every individual will usually result in a tough and drawn-out battle that will likely invoke deeply entrenched political views about the role of government in society. Instead, developing on the latter argument of there being a benefit to society as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that intelligence is not correlated in any significant way to social demography. Therefore there are large numbers of intellectually capable people who are not contributing to the nation's knowledge base. That is not to say that those who do not attend higher education are incapable of contributing to the effort to advancing the nation's intellectual frontiers, but the likelihood of this happening is dramatically increased through attendance at university. In the world we now live in where low skilled jobs are off-shored to emerging economies and new growth sectors in the global economy are within the high-tech, pharmaceutical and 'Big Data' industries, brain power is the only real way for a small nation dwarfed by the likes of China, India, Indonesia and Brazil to stay relevant and maintain global presence.

The responsibility for ensuring that the UK maximises its intellectual potential is surely that of a body elected to manage an economy by redistributing resources within a society and compensating for socially unfavourable market forces: the Government. So is it right to burden a research institution, whose raison d'être is to build on the intellectual progress of past, with the responsibility of taking on underperforming candidates who have been failed by government-led education? Some may argue so, but when universities select their students from the droves of applicants, are they selecting for past performance or future potential? Arguably most would blend the two and use past performance as an indicator of future potential, but this is neither the only way to do so nor is it unbiased as it does not accommodate social hurdles that an individual candidate has had to surmount. Take, for example, a child whose parents instilled no sense of aspiration and whose school never challenged them academically; for that child to achieve similarly to their peers at independent schools is no doubt an astonishing feat of self-motivation and intellect, both of which are qualities all universities prize.

Unfortunately no such stark contrast exists in society, no binary 'privileged' versus 'underprivileged'; there exists a broad spectrum of candidates that universities must consider, each with their own unique social backgrounds, that makes candidate selection an art that must be continually reviewed and refined. However there does seem to be a case for the role of universities in increasing the proportion of state-sector and disadvantaged students at their institutions. As for the Government's role? Well, that depends on your political persuasion.

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