Keith Burnett: Look to society for wider access to universities

THE Prime Minister intends to introduce a '˜duty of transparency' in relation to university admissions and social mobility. He said he wanted to tear down the barriers in top universities and others commented on the '˜shame' of low participation from under-represented groups.

Under the microscope...the University of Sheffield is identifying new ways to boost social mobility.

You would have to search hard in universities to find those who don’t want to remove barriers to talented students, whatever their background. But how do we do it? Is admonition enough – “Get on with it you uncaring bunch of ivory tower inhabitants!”

We do know there are some things we can’t do.

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We cannot use the method that has been used in the United States, for example. Any quota system is seen as social engineering, unfair and un-British.

So what are we allowed to do?

We are told that we simply have to abandon our awful prejudices against these groups, make more of an effort and they will flow. Really?

There are many who doubt whether or not a university is really for them.

When I arrived in Jesus College, Oxford, in the early 1970s as an undergraduate from a mining valley in South Wales, I was one of them.

It wasn’t just my physical environment; it was the breathtaking confidence, both social and academic, of my independent school peers. I had to work hard to catch up with them and to realise that it really was the place for me.

But I had an advantage – excellent teaching at school by a man who had himself undertaken an MSc in physics by research and who wrote physics text books.

I had a father who valued ideas and who encouraged me to achieve my potential.

I had access to books via a public library.

These advantages are not there for everyone.

In Sheffield, our university is deeply committed to widening participation and social mobility.

Indeed, it was written into the founding manifesto of a university to be ‘for the child of the working man’, funded largely from public subscription by factory workers and industrialists across our steel city. Today this determination to help others access higher education shows itself in many forms.

Our programme of access to medicine and dentistry begins work early with schools, supporting bright pupils who may never have considered university through summer schools and mentoring to consider medicine as an option, making subject choices along the way which make applications possible.

The fact that some early participants are now working as doctors is a huge source of pride, but it took monumental effort and significant resources.

Our work with other unrepresented groups is similarly challenging.

Sheffield has led a programme of support for young people in local authority care, which extends well beyond admission into the kind of back-up students with supportive families take for granted.

A former student who came to the UK as a child as an asylum seeker from Somalia now works directly with homework clubs and the BME community, but tells me that his own challenges as a pupil were often very practical – a lack of a quiet space to study, a computer or a desk to write an essay.

Mentoring made a difference, but he sees the need to offer new routes into university including apprenticeships with progression to degrees funded by employers. He is making links between local BME students and our programme of company-sponsored apprentices.

So back to the admission process.

We select students to university mostly on the basis of their A-level examination results.

This is not prejudice. We cannot allow any impression that admission is on any grounds other than merit.

But don’t we know that the performance in examinations can depend on social background and preparation by schools?

Couldn’t we just correct the A-level scores by looking at what some who talk about social mobility call ‘contextual data’?

We rightly exercise judgement with extreme caution. We do not want to go outside the bounds of properly-based academic judgment of a student’s potential.

This is fair to all. You have to be able to look into the face of the parent of a dear child that didn’t get in. You would not want us to use some crude correction, which would destroy our reputation for fairness.

Those who work tirelessly in state schools or whose families pay, often with hardship, for private education, would be right to chastise us for any lack of fairness.

So don’t interpret lack of progress in social mobility within universities as lack of awareness of a deep problem in society that we accept our role to solve.

Universities are working hard to open themselves to talent, and we want to do more. But we are part of a wider society which has far more to do if we are to succeed.