Jayne Dowle: Raise standards, don’t drop them in universities

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I will always support the Sutton Trust in its laudable aim to improve social mobility and educational diversity in Great Britain. After all, I’m one of the working class kids it is worried about.

Its latest campaign seeks to find ways in which admission to our top universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – might be improved for those who have not had the privilege of attending a high-ranking public school.

What is there to argue with? I spent a lot of my time at Keble College, Oxford, in the 1980s working for a student-led volunteer organisation called “Target Schools”. We would visit comprehensive schools in the holidays to try and demystify Oxford and higher education.

Our aims were earnest, but our efforts were in vain. A recent Freedom of Information request from Labour MP David Lammy reveals that 82 per cent of Oxbridge offers are currently made to applicants in the top two social classes. In other words the children of doctors and lawyers, not steelworkers like my dad.

This is worrying enough, but it gets worse. In 2010, this figure was 79 per cent. And between 2004 and 2009 it was 77 per cent. Now, my degree is in English Literature and Language, not Mathematics, but even I can work out that something’s not right here. Remember, this is offers handed out, not applicants attempting to get in. Why are Oxford and Cambridge making it harder for young people from less-advantaged families to benefit from the opportunities in life an Oxbridge degree bestows?

As one who got in under the wire, I think it’s partly because such ancient institutions like to preserve the status quo. That’s why they have survived so long.

It’s also because all our leading universities are becoming far more risk-averse. In order to attract public funding and private investment and able students from overseas, they need to protect their reputation. Why take a gamble on a clever but obscure applicant, the first person in their family to go to university, when they can pick one whose father excelled at the same college?

There is little room for indulgence in 21st century higher education. I achieved a good 2:1 in my own Finals, but I am pretty sure that with my rubbish O-Levels working against me, I wouldn’t even have merited an admissions interview these days.

In the face of this, the Sutton Trust is arguing that offers at top universities should be “contextualised”. The economic background of a student should be taken into account and a lower offer made to reflect the fact that they won’t have enjoyed the same advantages as others. So perhaps instead of being asked for AAA in their A Levels, they might be offered a place if they achieve ABB.

I can see the argument, but I don’t support it. There is no point in raising the hopes of an ill-prepared student, only to have them dashed once the reality of hyper-competitive rigorous study kicks in. And how would you feel if you knew you had only been given a place because you were on some kind of special scheme? It’s like the kid who still carries the stigma of being the only one in his class on free school meals.

As college life is rife with gossip, everybody would know which students were set apart. Some undergraduates will already be intellectually arrogant enough, without having another set of victims to patronise.

This might sound cruel, but you can kind of see the justification. If you had spent your entire life from the age of three being hot-housed and tutored and put through a demanding expensive education in order to achieve four A stars at A-Level, would you be happy to share a library with a comprehensive school kid with three Bs whom the admissions tutor felt sorry for? Your well-connected parents wouldn’t like it either and would no doubt complain in the highest circles.

Supporters argue that contextualisation operates okay in the United States where Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Yale regularly adjust their requirements to let in students from a wide range of backgrounds. However, that nation is still (just about) a meritocracy. Why else would President Trump be in charge?

How would contextualisation work in practice in our own creaky class-ridden country? At all top universities, not just Oxbridge, admissions is often still a mysterious and non-standardised procedure. Some tutors in some subjects might be more lenient to those from less-privileged backgrounds, others less so.

Frankly, I think that the idea should be dropped as soon as possible and the Sutton Trust should concentrate its not inconsiderable power on persuading the Government to improve state education with relentless dedication. No admissions tutor can argue with a string of As achieved at A Level. If our state schools delivered what they should, there would be no need to make excuses for the pupils they produce.

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