“Cambridge,” proclaims the Independent, “is the most unequal university in Britain”.
The Guardian, meanwhile, appeals to primary sources: “my working class background still counts against me,” writes a student. And the Daily Mail, respectfully avoiding its trademark capitalisation, narrates the poignant story of a young woman who, after being mocked during her Cambridge interview, obtained a first class degree from Warwick University. Clearly, the University of Cambridge does not always receive the most positive coverage from the press, whether left, right, or centre.
Such criticism has not fallen on empty ears. Cambridge is under pressure to demonstrate that it is tackling the perceived inequalities in its admissions system, for watchdogs are watching, pressure groups are pressuring, and scrutinisers are scrutinising.
“Such criticism has not fallen on empty ears. Cambridge is under pressure to demonstrate that it is tackling the perceived inequalities in its admissions system, for watchdogs are watching, pressure groups are pressuring, and scrutinisers are scrutinising.”
Unfortunately, such attention has led to the adoption of an outreach programme that is superficial and that does not address the deep, fundamental inequalities of the British education system.
The nature of outreach at Cambridge (or Oxford, almost equivalently) is bidirectional, and focuses predominantly on pupils in the final years of their pre-university education. Either pupils are brought to Cambridge (Oxford) to receive some form of tuition in their subjects, generally accompanied by admissions advice specific to Cambridge (Oxford), or students and staff from the University are brought to the pupils. The outreach programme tends to (but does not exclusively) consist of short events delivered once.
All with one goal: increasing participation in higher education, particularly by students from backgrounds consistently under-represented at ‘elite’ universities. Participation has indeed been increasing. Student numbers experienced a visible up-turn in the 1990s; the number of student accepting university places broke five consecutive records in the five consecutive years of 2012–2016. Participation rates, the proportion of young people (currently those aged 17–30) attending university in a given year, are closing in on 50% for the population at large, and are 56% for young women domiciled in England. Enrolment of students from ethnic minorities has risen, up 18% in 2017/18 compared with 2013/14.
Yet prospects still depend heavily on class, race, and local authority.
Are you a pupil eligible for free school meals (FSM) in Cumbria, Barnsley, or South Gloucestershire? Under 10% of your classmates will be in higher education at the age of 19. Relocate to Westminster or Kensington and Chelsea, and your chances rise to over 50%. The gap in entry rates, which measure the proportion of successful university applications, between FSM and non-FSM pupils was actually larger in 2018 that in was in 2015. Enrolment on undergraduate courses besides traditional bachelor’s degrees, once seen as a path for university admissions departments into under-represented segments of the population, has fallen sharply.
Thus inequality persists. The glossy leaflets produced by university marketing departments and the glossy presentations given to pupils at underachieving schools do nothing to tackle the root of inequality in university education, which is, quite simply, inequality in pre-university education. The Dearing report, published in 1997 and best known for recommending the introduction of tuition fees and the lifting of caps on student numbers, sets out the problem particularly lucidly: “all the available evidence suggests that the largest single determinant of participation in higher education…is educational achievement at 18…In turn, the best predictor of educational achievement at 18 is achievement at 16.” So, while outreach undoubtedly has some effect, historically increases in participation have been achieved by changes to state education, driven and funded by the state. They are hard to quantify, as Department for Education statistics suffer from breaks and discontinuities resulting from changes in the definitions of different institutions, and measuring participation by class began only recently. Nonetheless, the increase in the participation from 3.4% in 1950 to 19.3% in 1990 is undoubtedly linked to the the fact that in 1953 2.8% of the population passed three or more A-levels, whereas in 1990 that number was 15.3%. Changes such as these are much more likely to be the result of the shifting attitude of British society at large towards education than of the comparatively recent efforts of British universities.
“Politicians and journalists look for simple solutions to difficult problems, and in the case of universities, the simplest is to shift the burden of guaranteeing equality in education from schools to universities.”
Politicians and journalists look for simple solutions to difficult problems, and in the case of universities, the simplest is to shift the burden of guaranteeing equality in education from schools to universities. Today, in a United Kingdom where higher education is a market, universities are businesses, and students are consumers, such a shift is equivalent to privatising equality. Universities certainly have ample financial incentive to increase participation. In the language of capital, admitting under-represented students means exploring new markets, with significant associated profits. But by the final years of pre-university education, the damage has already been done, the lines between those set to prosper and those set to struggle have been drawn, and no number of presentations, leaflets, and workshops will erase them.
Therefore, universities truly concerned with fighting inequality should seek to build long-standing relationships with schools, starting from the earliest years. Progress has certainly been made. Several departments of the University of Cambridge, for example, produce educational resources for schools; the Millennium Mathematics Project is a laudable example, in which a partnership of the University of Cambridge Faculties of Mathematics and Education develop a set of problems in mathematics and the physical sciences targeting pupils at any stage in their studies. It is along these lines — the direct involvement of universities in school teaching, backed by the government — that outreach programmes should run. Because it is in school that inequality begins, and in school that it must end. This is the duty of education.
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