Inequality at universities is a symptom, not a cause

Social injustice occurs before students even apply

source: flickr

Our country is facing a damning educational inequality problem, which has always existed and isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. The unrepresentative nature of our best universities is an important issue to tackle, meaning it was all the more disappointing when the government’s grand solution to this is using ‘sanctions’ against these institutions.

This is the brainchild of the government’s Education Committee and, as with most things stemming from government committees, it’s not a very good idea. The lack of clarity on what being sanctioned entails is frankly alarming. In truth, I’m not sure policymakers even know themselves, with Nicola Dandridge vaguely claiming that sanctions could involve ‘fines’, ‘encouragement’, and ‘engagement’. Issuing some of the richest institutions in the world with a fine doesn’t seem like it’s going to get results. With ‘encouragement’ and ‘engagement’, the government are simply encouraging from the side-lines, while not doing anything themselves.

The committee has also given no indication of how they’re going to measure what they consider to be ‘social injustice’. Are they just going to fine any university that doesn’t have enough students deemed as sufficiently poor or disadvantaged? Those from low intake backgrounds don’t want pity, token places, or positive discrimination: they want the support that will allow them a fair chance at making a successful application. Instead, the government is using these petty punishments against elite universities as a smokescreen for their own chronic failure to address the UK’s educational inequality issue. Elite universities do have a responsibility to help. Yet, the government needs to acknowledge that the problem starts with their failing education system.

Independent schools nurture from birth a host of well equipped applicants who could sit an Oxbridge interview before they were toilet trained. In contrast, low funding, high staff turnover, and lack of information means state schools aren’t providing people with the tools and encouragement they need to apply to Oxbridge successfully.

Furthermore, the media’s focus on inequality at Oxbridge only perpetuates the stereotype they are trying to eliminate. Prospective applicants read these demonising articles and wrongly assume that Oxbridge isn’t for them. So, thank you David Lammy for setting back outreach work once again. And thank you to the government, whose use of elite universities as a scapegoat just prevented another talented teen from applying.

Instead of making hollow statements about sanctions, the Education Committee should take a long hard look at the secondary education system. If they participated in the conversation Oxbridge outreach teams are trying to have with hopeful applicants, instead of fuelling the vindictive media, then we might begin to see the changes we all hope for.