Though we read from time to time of new efforts by universities or colleges, such as Clare College, Cambridge, or Bristol University, to admit students from non-privileged backgrounds, we know that the peaks of British higher education are still overwhelmingly favourable to those from more affluent homes. At present, we are just tinkering with an injustice that feeds through into the professions and the whole social fabric.
Contrast that with the United States. When I lived there, I heard many complaints about entry to higher education, but they came from my wealthy New York friends. Despite sending their children to exclusive private schools, they grumbled, they could not get them into the top universities. I decided to find out why, starting in Boston with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, and working down the East Coast visiting Brown, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and finishing with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I subsequently spent a day at a Harvard admissions committee meeting as an observer.
Breakfast in Boston set the tone for the trip. I met the director of summer schools at MIT, a black graduate. He had gone to an inner-city school in New York, but had done well on his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a multiple-choice test designed to test aptitude and potential rather than achievement in nationally moderated exams like A-levels. MIT made him an offer in April on condition that he got on a plane to Boston and worked through till September, so that he could handle the work when the degree course started.
Up the road at Harvard, I found an admissions department with its own building. It had 50 people working in undergraduate admissions alone to admit 1,650 students each year. I wondered what they all did, and was told that most of them are involved in recruitment; each admissions officer is responsible for one area of the country and it is his or her job to identify talented kids and persuade them to apply. In the UK, by contrast, leading universities do virtually no recruitment and the admissions offices rarely have more than two or three full-time people, working alongside part-timers.
Harvard is not at all exceptional. In the universities I visited, the average size of the undergraduate admissions office was 40 people, most of them involved in active recruitment. Some have responsibility for a target group (say, a particular ethnic group), others for a geographical area.
All the American universities that I visited are committed to the idea that a fundamental part of university life is a student body with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and talents. They are private institutions that are registered charities and, as such, they serve a social purpose. They take this responsibility seriously, so they are not primarily focused on producing outstanding academics (although they naturally want to maintain academic standards), but on finding individuals who will make a valuable contribution to university life and who will become leaders in their chosen fields.
These universities acknowledge that they compete with each other to recruit the best candidates, and they go to great lengths to find them. They target by a mailshot all those whom they identify as high achievers through the database of SAT scores which is available. In addition to the admissions staff, the alumni take a very active role in identifying potential candidates - people who have won academic prizes or shone in some other way - in the areas where they live.
It doesn't end with the initial recruitment. The universities make great efforts to ensure that anybody who has been offered a place feels comfortable about accepting it. They employ current undergraduates from similar backgrounds to telephone them for a chat and to answer questions. They run "taster weekends" for groups which they believe are in particular need of encouragement, such as under-represented minorities. Some universities (Columbia, MIT, Penn and Princeton) operate a summer programme before the start of the first year, for students who are deemed to be in need of extra support. It means that these students get some academic credit and are able to hit the ground running when term starts.
The major differences between our leading universities and the US universities are the enormous resources that they put into recruitment of students from non- privileged backgrounds and their wider criteria for selection which are designed to pick out high achievers in society. Selection is on the basis of merit, but that is judged not only by academic performance but also by SAT scores, rank in class, extra-curricular activities and other outstanding achievements. And it is all done in the context of where the student is now in relation to where that student has come from.
Does all this work? The Mellon Foundation did a research study of over 20,000 students who came through the system that is now in place. The overwhelming conclusion was that the entry practices at leading American universities have been successful at creating outstanding people in all fields. For example, it was found that 40 per cent of black graduates in the survey went on to get a qualification that provides entry to the top professions in the US. This is a slightly higher success rate than that of their white counterparts; blacks were five times more likely than the general college-going population to get a qualification in medicine, and seven times more likely to get one in law.
Now look at Britain. Bristol University recently published an access report, which showed that very few students go to Bristol from the bottom 50 per cent of schools. The same is almost certainly true for the top dozen or so universities in this country. If you attend a school where the average A-level score is, say, 12 points (three Ds), the chance of getting the 28 points (two As and a B) that you need to get into Bristol is slim, even if you are brilliant. The average A-level score in some of the top private schools is greater than 28 points.
So we have nothing like a level playing field. Rather, it is a Mount Everest of injustice, with the leading private schools at the top and the inner-city comprehensives at the bottom. I am not suggesting that we should dumb down. I am suggesting that we stop wasting so much talent. Lots of children are underachieving academically through no fault of their own. They just happen to attend schools where results are below average, and these are mainly in less affluent areas.
The government's strategy is to improve state schools, particularly those that are underperforming, so that the playing field will become more level.
I support this endeavour, and the Sutton Trust, which I chair, will be funding the establishment of a number of specialist state schools which have shown significantly faster rates of improvement than the average comprehensive. But I am sure it will take many years and huge resources to make a significant difference. Even if state schools improve, we cannot expect private schools to stand still. So we have to accept the enormous disparities in performance between schools, as the Americans do, and make an allowance for them.
Bristol has started to do this. It has documented evidence that a student from a below-average performing school can be accepted with lower A-level grades (by two to three points) and get a degree as good as, or better than, the student who comes from a high performing school. This is a small opening of the door, but it doesn't nearly go far enough.
The problem with the UK is that there is no test of aptitude and potential; entry to university is measured solely on achievement at A-level or, worse still, projected achievement at A-level. The introduction of a test along the lines of the SAT would enable universities both to identify bright students who are underachieving academically and to use it as part of selection. In other words, if you had a student with Bs and Cs from a below-average performing school who scored well on a SAT-type test, you might want to do further work to see whether that student could handle the course at a top university. Interestingly, Singapore, which has in the past relied solely on A-levels for entry to its universities, is now introducing the SAT to be used in conjunction with A-levels.
No test can be entirely objective. US critics argue that the SAT discriminates against candidates from certain ethnic minorities and that good coaching and lots of practice can enable candidates to improve their scores. If we introduced a similar UK test, we would need to address these objections.
At the Sutton Trust, we are looking at the feasibility of such tests and we have discussed running pilots with leading universities. Recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that students from social classes three to six account for roughly two-thirds of the population but less than one-fifth of the entry to leading universities and medical schools. It is crucial that we find some solution to this problem - not only in the interests of social justice, but also to stop the waste of talent.
Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, a private charity established to help overcome social inequality in education