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9 December 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Discriminate more, not less

Are universities giving preferential treatment to state school pupils, and rejecting private school

By Francis Beckett

Saying the class war is over is like saying the cold war is over. What people really mean is: our side won. The upper class has triumphed, and all is right with the world. But just as the autumn closed in on the summer of 2002, the victorious class felt a sudden shiver of panic. Maybe the proles hadn’t been routed after all.

The victorious class perceived, despite the government’s plans for top-up fees, a threat to the dominance of universities by the children of the rich. The Headmasters’ Conference – the top public schools’ club – issued a report suggesting that the government might be doing something effective to change the situation where anything between one-third and a half of the students at the most prestigious universities – and one-quarter, across the whole university sector – come from the 7 per cent of the population who attend private fee-charging schools.

So renewed class war was declared in the columns of the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph. Truth was the first casualty. The Sunday Times gave two pages to sustained class war rhetoric, arguing that the universities were now discriminating against private school pupils. Under the headline “So which one is privileged?” it printed huge pictures of a despondent pupil from a fee-charging school rejected by Nottingham University, and a triumphant state school pupil accepted by Newcastle University. “To parents . . . who have paid their tax, found the state system wanting and paid again to educate their children privately, the apparent shifting of the goalposts is galling,” fulminated the reporters.

“Apparent” is a wonderful journalists’ weasel word. It meant they had no hard evidence that discrimination was actually happening. The Headmasters’ Conference report on which their work was based had failed to provide any, simply saying: “Anecdotal evidence over the past few years has pointed to a possible lack of objectivity in the way that some prestigious key players in higher education make their offers.” A small minority of universities, it noted, make offers based on fairly low A-level scores, yet also reject large numbers of candidates. It might be the case, the HMC says, that these universities demand lower scores from state school pupils than they demand from private school pupils. It might indeed. Then again, it might not.

The implication is that universities should choose their entrants on the basis of A-level scores alone. That would certainly be more transparent. It is, however, exactly the opposite of what Oxford University and the HMC said in the case of Laura Spence, the comprehensive school student whose case was highlighted by Gordon Brown. She was expected to get excellent A-levels (and did) but Oxford rejected her. It was very foolish, we were then told, to expect universities to select on the basis of A-levels alone. They rightly took into account all sorts of other factors.

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The truth is that universities still take a grossly disproportionate number of students from fee-charging schools; that, broadly speaking, the more prestigious the university, the higher its proportion of pupils from fee-charging schools; and that neither the universities nor the government are doing anything effective to change this. Oxford and Cambridge take almost half their students from fee-charging schools; at Imperial College London, St Andrews and Bristol, it’s about 40 per cent; at the London School of Economics, it’s about a third; even at Oxford Brookes, a former polytechnic and therefore near the bottom of the prestige ladder, it’s more than a quarter.

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These figures disguise the real situation. Almost all pupils from fee-charging schools stay at school after 16 – but they do not always stay in the private sector. An increasing number of parents transfer them to state schools after GCSE. If these pupils go to university, they count in the statistics as state school pupils. So do the likes of Tony Blair’s children, educated at a state school but tutored for university by teachers from Westminster, a leading public school. The real proportion of private school pupils is even higher than the figures show.

So what is the government doing about it? The Higher Education Funding Council, which channels government money to universities, has £46.6m to spend on “widening participation”. The council sets a target for each university of the proportion of state school and working-class students it should have, based on the profile of its applicants. So long as a university has a strategy to try to reach the target, it gets its share of the money, whether it reaches the target or not.

The result is what you’d expect. Universities set up schemes designed to “pursue the government’s widening participation agenda” (to use the politically correct term). Oxford has a host of such schemes: summer schools for children from state schools, mostly in the inner cities; a residential week for teachers from schools with a low proportion of pupils going into higher education; an “aspiration project” for selected high-ability pupils from St Helens, Lancashire; and so on. These schemes are excellent. But they help only small numbers of young people; they will not make a dent in the figures.

The elite universities chafe under even this minimal pressure. They blame state schools for the imbalance. Oxbridge dons claim that the problem is reverse snobbery among comprehensive school careers teachers, which prevents pupils applying to Oxbridge. They produce no evidence for this. They also denigrate state education. The Sunday Times quotes Alan Ryan, warden of New College Oxford, saying: “They want some magic device to take people who have not had an adequate secondary education, funnel them into university, and hope everything somehow works out OK. Trying to rescue a lousy education system at the age of 18 is too late.” At Imperial College, which demands high standards of maths for entry to its science and engineering courses, senior staff say the problem is the shortage of good maths teachers in the state system – at comprehensives, A-level maths is often taught by non-mathematicians.

The shortage of maths teachers in state schools is certainly real. But universities are supposed to be looking for potential, not past attainment. A student from a crumbling and understaffed inner-city comprehensive may well have more academic potential than one from a tiny class at a top public school with slightly better A-levels.

The universities also clamour to charge top-up fees, claiming (a neat bit of footwork, this) that it is a way of redistributing wealth. If the rich pay full fees, they say, the money can be used to ensure that the poor pay no fees at all. And it is true that a small number of the very poor will be helped. The very rich, meantime, need no help. The rest will probably decide that they can no more afford Oxbridge than they can afford a night at the Ritz. Oxford and Cambridge will become the Eton and Westminster of higher education, serving the sons and daughters of the rich, while salving their consciences by taking a few of the brightest and most deserving of the poor.

Top universities need to do exactly what the Sunday Times wrongly accused them of doing, and discriminate in favour of state school pupils. The university that has perhaps come nearest to stepping over this precipice is Bristol, which is probably why it came top of the list of those the HMC was concerned about. With 13 applicants for every place, Bristol was choosing pupils from fee-charging schools four times out of ten. So, to quote its new admissions policy, “tutors make some allowance for educational disadvantage to avoid overlooking exceptional students who happen to attend schools with a generally poor academic performance”. A university spokesman told me: “If we have two applicants, one predicted three As from a great public school, the other predicted two As and a B from a school with a very bad record of getting pupils into higher education, we might decide that the latter had more academic potential.”

It’s a start. But we need to go much further. Each university should move towards a situation where its proportion of private school pupils matches the proportion in the population as a whole. The universities have nothing to lose. The right-wing press is on the attack anyway, resenting even the modest “widening participation” programmes already in place. The Sunday Times railed against schemes whereby state school pupils attend preparatory summer schools. So universities may as well do the job properly.

This would mean real discrimination against pupils from fee-charging schools. As such schools rely partly for their appeal on the justified claim that their pupils are more likely to get places at top universities, they would become much less attractive to well-heeled parents. Indeed, it could lead to the demise of the public schools. That is a social consequence a Labour government should be able to live with.