The gap in higher education participation between students from the most privileged and the most deprived areas of England is closing, a new study shows.
The study comes as the popular Sunday newspaper News of the World announces a new scheme to help state-educated students win places at Oxford.
The national survey shows that thirty percent more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are going on to higher education than five years ago, in comparison to a five percent increase amongst students from the most privileged areas. The investigation was carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
There was a 17% increase in state-school applications to Oxford this year, suggesting that the narrowing class gap may be also be reflected here, although the statistics have not yet been released showing how many succeeded in gaining a place.
But the News of the World still complained of a “gaping class divined that blights our education system” when they launched their project on Sunday.
The tabloid paper’s scheme will put 500 “hard-working state school students” through an intensive week-long course in the summer to help them prepare for Oxford and get an idea of the University admissions process.
The course itself is offered by the University, while the paper covers other costs and encourages its readers or their children to apply.
The programme is being funded by an anonymous “wealthy benefactor”.
Schools secretary Ed Balls praised the newspaper’s plans. “I believe no barrier should get in the way of young people making the most of their potential,” he said.
£2.8 million was spent last year on ‘outreach activities’ across the university and colleges.
On News of the World’s plans to help more state school students into Oxford, a University spokesperson said: “Oxford University is delighted to be working with the News of the World…We want to attract the most academically talented students to the university. The summer school will enable 500 students from state schools to get a really good idea of what life is like at Oxford.”
News of the World offered applicants “the education you deserve”. Daniel Webb, President of ‘Target Schools’, an organisation that recruits Oxford students to visit schools and advertise Oxford as a realistic choice, welcomed the news of a closing gap between private and state students, but said that there was still much to do.
“I think that the increased likelihood of a disadvantaged pupil entering higher education is very encouraging; however, it does not mean that the best candidates from such a background are always thinking about applying to Oxford,” he said.
“Oxford’s access schemes are showing signs of success: there was a significantly increased proportion of maintained sector applications to the university for the last admissions round” he claimed, but added, “this does not equate to places gained and does not mean that stereotypes about Oxford do not persist.”
A spokesperson for Oxford University said: “Oxford very much welcomes the results of the HEFCE study. The University has been undertaking outreach activities for a number of years – both encouraging students from all backgrounds to apply to Oxford, as well as helping many to enter higher education and raise their educational aspirations more generally.”
Asked whether the result of HEFCE’s study is mirrored at Oxford, she claimed, “Oxford does not classify students by economic or social demographics such as ‘deprived’ or ‘privileged’ in gathering information.”
However, there still appears to be a sense amongst those from disadvantaged areas that access to the best universities is beyond their reach, and a fear of being looked down upon by a middle-class majority.
Becky Edwards, a Magdalen student who works for ‘Target Schools’, speaking at schools with low numbers of higher education applicants, often in deprived areas, claimed “It’s mainly about debunking the stories and myths,” adding, “They all ask, ‘are they all posh?’ and ‘are they all rich?'”