Prospects now even worse for poorer students says professor

Becky Alldridge 7 November 2013

A professor of education at the University of Cambridge has stated that the prospects of poorer students attending higher education institutions have improved very little, if at all, since 1963.

Professor Anna Vignoles’ comments come on the 50th anniversary of the publication of a paper by Lord Robbins, an LSE professor of Economics, in which he suggested that increasing the access of students from poorer backgrounds to higher education would be a “great social leveller”.

Professor Vignoles points out that in the Robbins era of 1963,the rate of participation of people from backgrounds in manual occupations was about 4 per cent. In 2000, it was about 20 per cent. However, she also pointed out that participation rates for richer students have increased to a larger extent, widening the gap. Referring to this increase, Vignoles noted: “Your relative chances of going to university as a poor student have actually worsened over this period.”

“Despite the fact that we’ve increased participation in higher education… it remains the case that the single predictor of whether or not you’re likely to go to university is your family background.” She added, “If we are going to solve the problem of achievement by poor kids, we need to invest in our school system”. In response to Professor Vignoles’ remarks, Alissa Lamb, Access Officer at Trinity Hall, stated that “while a lot has been done to widen access to universities to a more diverse set of students, there is still a big issue with under representation of students from low income families. I think a large part of this is to do with the perception that a university degree is a waste of time and money when one could start earning immediately after leaving school.”

Lamb suggested that this “could be alleviated by greater teacher training on graduate prospects at schools which don’t traditionally send pupils to university, and more incentive for companies to run funded vocational courses. For example, I think KPMG have been running one at Durham.”

Claire Callender, the Professor of higher education at Birkbeck, University of London, discussed this issue. She indicated that the social constitution of universities has remained relatively stable and unchanged since the early 1960s. She told the conference, “the massive expectation of Robbins and beyond was to spread educational opportunities more equally across the social classes…it has only been a partial success.”

Clare student Shivana Shood told TCS: “I think private school really helps a lot in terms of accessing higher education”. She also added: “there needs to be a focus on increasing awareness in terms of the value of a university education and on the grants and financial support offered by the government which are available to students from less privileged backgorunds”.