The Worst of Both Worlds: Disadvantaged students in Higher Education

Two stories about Higher Education made the news this morning.  One relates to the now familiar issue of funding.  It has been suggested that the state should fund one year’s study for students from poorer backgrounds, and that another matching year should be funded by their university.  As Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge pointed out on the Today programme, this scheme would have a disproportionate impact on new universities, already identified as much more likely to be hit by the cuts (pdf).   Whereas 46.6% of students at Oxford went to private schools, only 1 or 2% of students at most new universities did so.  Only 0.8% of students at Oxford were eligible for free school meals, by contrast with six new universities in London where over 20% of students were eligible.

The other story, by contrast, represented an attack on the old university sector, in particular Oxbridge.  Simon Hughes lashed out at universities, like Oxford, with a high proportion of students from private schools.

“I think my message to the universities is – you have gained quite a lot in the settlement.

“Yes, you’ve lost lots of state money, but you’ve got another revenue stream that’s going to protect you.

“You now have to deliver in turn. You cannot expect to go on as you are. It has failed miserably.”

“Every university should, wherever their fee level is, but specifically for a fee level above £6,000, recruit on the basis of no more people coming from the private sector than there are in the public as a whole.”

I’m not sure that most universities, new or old, would agree that they have ‘gained quite a lot in the settlement.’   More prestigious universities work hard to ensure that they select the best students, taking into account their potential to improve as well as their performance to date.  (Sometimes they have been criticised for perceived bias against privately educated pupils.)  It may be a problem that there is such a correlation between exam success and social class – but it’s not the universities’ problem.    Perhaps Oxbridge could do still more – though they already invest a lot of time and money in outreach initiatives – but this kind of crude and aggressive interference is extremely unwelcome.