Don’t blame universities for low state school admissions

Here we go again. In The Independent on the 26th April, an article was published claiming that state school pupils are on average ‘likely to have two grades higher than private school pupils’ and thus revealing a bias amongst Russell Group universities against state school students. This comes from new research from Durham University which claims to show that not only do fewer state school pupils apply to Russell Group universities but those that do are less likely to be made offers.

Sadly, the first part of these ‘findings’, is hardly news. The second, whilst likely to be factually correct has been attributed to the university application system being inherently unfair, and this is what I take most issue with.

Each year, as Year 13s make their university applications, scandalous stories about excellent state school pupils being maltreated and disadvantaged suffocate the media and we are told that it is the Russell Group universities’ fault for not being sufficiently inclusive.

However, having come through the whole system myself, starting in the inner-city state school and ending up at one of these condemned universities I feel I can say with some confidence that the reason for the comparatively low number of state school students applying and being made offers does not lie with the university but with the government’s treatment of the state sector.  

Why, rather than continuously and excessively slamming our universities, are we not trying to equalize the starting point between state and private school pupils?

The main concern of Dr Vikki Boliver’s research appears to be that state school pupils are less likely to be made offers from Russell Group universities; if this is true, then the glaring reason behind it is not an institutional bias, but because state school pupils are less likely to be told how to write their personal statements, or prepared for the interview process that is required to be made an offer from many Russell Group universities.

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Why is this? And who is to blame? Do not read this as a criticism of state schools themselves – my personal experience saw me getting into Oxford, and I received more help from my sixth form than I could have hoped for – but from having friends at other sixth forms and colleges I know I was lucky.

Still, I am loath to point the finger at state school teachers who are generally over-worked and too drowned in bureaucracy to spend extra, un-paid time, providing interview practice. No doubt the government’s £120m cuts to sixth form education in 2010 did not help matters.

This a problem which absolutely needs to be dealt with, but by pinning the blame on universities who choose the students who seem capable of completing the degree (as is in their interest), the real root cause is being glossed over. An article which states “Top universities really are biased in favour of private school pupils” is only going to further discourage capable state school students of applying.

In a standard state sixth form of 160 students, of vastly varying abilities, what teacher will have time to encourage that small handful of pupils who could apply. That is not to say the disparity in figures should not be talked about, but it must be approached in a way which tackles the actual problem that more time and money needs to be provided by the government to support state schools rather than taken away, just as the cost of going to university has sky-rocketed.

 This extra time and support is the key difference between state and private education, not the capability of their respective students or teachers. Great if you can afford it, but denying it to those that cannot is a deep injustice which is not being addressed.

Let us not kid ourselves that the reason there is a higher percentage of private school pupils who go onto university is that universities are biased. With state funds having been cut, state sixth forms have had to reduce staff numbers, and therefore the number of courses on offer has been reduced: courses which could have made a difference to students’ university applications.

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Sixth forms which may have previously employed someone to help their students specifically with UCAS applications no longer can. Rather than see another article lamenting the situation, it is time we confronted the issue, and that the government was taken to task on what it is doing to the state sector.