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‘Elite’ universities still blighted by snobbery


POLITICIANS are very keen to blame teachers for failing to inspire pupils with sufficient aspiration and confidence to persuade them to apply to Oxbridge and other so-called “elite” universities, and less enthusiastic about criticising the universities themselves for creating a self-reinforcing spiral.

Of course, governments have to accept responsibility for underfunding schools and closing SureStart centres, but universities have the means to improve social mobility at a stroke, and refuse to do it.

Back in October last year David Lammy revealed how both Oxford and Cambridge, recipients of over £800 million of taxpayers’ money each year, enrol consistently around 80 per cent of their intake from the top two social classes, with more offers being made to pupils from Eton than to students on free school meals across the whole country. Unsurprisingly, the number of ethnic minority students accepted is so low that Lammy concluded there has to be “systematic bias.”

And still the universities make excuses. A recent article in the Guardian by Professor Jonathan Wolff from Oxford University claimed that “playing safe” with undergraduate admissions — in other words giving preference to applicants from upper-middle-class homes — was encouraged by the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework.

This includes students’ dropout rates as a measurement of a university’s success, but the framework has been in existence for under two years and is the most feeble of reasons for explaining decades of the lack of diversity in our “top” universities.

It clearly does not explain why students with straight As from an economically poor area in the north of England stand far less chance of being accepted by one of the Russell Group universities than someone with similar grades from a state school.

According to Lammy’s research, Oxford, for example, makes more offers to applicants from five of the home counties than to the whole of the north of England.

How similar are those qualifying grades anyway? Do universities check whether the grades have been achieved through traditional A-levels, or whether students have taken the Pre-U examinations, popular in most public schools, where there is the possibility that the exam papers were either set or marked by their teachers.

A cheating scandal was exposed involving these examinations last summer, resulting in a pathetic “investigation” by the Commons education select committee.

If these examinations, which are not inspected and regulated by the Joint Council for Qualifications like all the other examinations taken by sixth-formers, and run, incidentally, by Cambridge Assessment International, part of Cambridge University, are not chosen because of the extra advantage they afford, what is the reason?

Where is the “risk,” anyway, in offering a place to a student from a school in an economically deprived area, who achieves grade Bs and Cs in traditional A-level examinations, and who clearly has the potential to attain an excellent degree?

He or she may lack confidence, unsurprisingly, and may not perform well in a nerve-racking interview, but could have real talent and potential to improve further.

Research by Cardiff and Oxford Brookes universities proved students from state schools gain better degrees than privately educated candidates with the same A-level grades.

There is only one reason the so-called “elite” universities recruit so many undergraduates from private schools when nationally only 7 per cent of pupils attend them — academic snobbery.

A Labour government should consider legislation, both to force these universities to open their doors much wider and to insist all qualifications in Britain are gained through properly regulated examinations.

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