What are universities (not) doing about "social exclusion"? Some myths . . .
I got up earlier in the week to hear Alan Milburn ("the social mobility czar") talking on the Today Programme about access to "top universities", coinciding with the publication of a new report: "Higher Education: the Fair Access Challenge". It's worth reading, and there are some terrible headline statistics. Just to take one from the early pages of this report, the odds of a kid in a state secondary school on free school meals in Year 11 getting into Oxbridge at age 19 are something like 2000 to 1; the odds of a privately educated getting in at more like 20 to 1.
Noone in their right mind can think this is remotely acceptable, and everyone I know in Cambridge is working as hard as they can to change it. That said, you have to be a bit careful about some of the more lurid statistics. When I looked at the Freedom of Information stuff that David Lammy had got a couple of years ago, it was instantly clear that the location of the outreach events were confused with the audience. That is to say, the Ancient Greek Summer School that happens every year at Bryanston School (for all comers, with bursaries etc) seemed to have gone down as a fortnight's wall to wall outreach to independent Bryanston School (Why choose an independent school as the host? perhaps you ask. Well you try finding a safe, secure and legal place to hold a residential course for a load of 16 year-olds....) So when I see people tweeting that: "More oxbridge outreach events at Eton in 2012 than entire cities of B'ham & L'pool." I strongly suspect that the Eton Summer Courses have got mixed up in these figures somehow.
My problem is not with recognising the problem; it's with the proposed solutions. On the radio Milburn did say quite rightly that it was time to stop the blame game between universities and schools and government and start working together on this one. All the same, the basic tenor of his message on the radio (and in the report) was that universities should be doing MORE than they are. There was still that sense that Oxbridge dons, especially, were only paying lipservice to access, that they continued in their bad old ways and chose students in their own image, without much thought for social in/exclusion.
It made me want to weep.
I tweeted my tears -- and the usual range of tweets, emails and comments followed, many with good suggestions about what uni's might be doing to improve things.
In fact, so far as I could see, we're doing all of them already.
At this point I have to say that I am writing with my personal views, not those of Cambridge University (though I doubt they are very different). And I am writing this from my own experience in Classics, other subjects would offer different nuances, but not a completely different picture. So here goes . . .
Shouldn't we be making more efforts to cover the whole country, some people suggested, instead of having all Oxbridge colleges chasing kids from the leafy South East? Well actually at Cambridge, we have divided up the country -- so that particular colleges build up relations with different areas, precisely to prevent that kind of duplication. It's called the Area Link Scheme, and my own college is working with Birmingham and Walsall, Enfield, Redbridge and Barking & Dagenham.
Shouldn't we be making lower offers to bright kids who struggled against difficult circumstances? The truth is that as long as I have taught in Cambridge, I've done just that. What on earth would the point be of asking for the same grade in A level Ancient Greek, from the applicant who has only been studying in the lunch time once a week, and the one who has been learning it for years on a full timetable. In the "old days" we would sometimes make really low offers in particular circumstances; that's not so common now as -- lets face it -- the vast majority of our applicants are going to get three A's anyway.
Shouldn't we be doing something for those kids who havent had the opportunity to learn the subjects we require at school? Well, we are. In Classics, since 1972, we've had a special course for students who havent studied Greek before, and for the last 10 years we have run a targetted prelim year for those who havent been able to learn Latin. (It makes the course 4 years rather than 3 -- and yes, the fee issue bulks large...)
Shouldn't we be getting to kids earlier, before the very moment when they are deciding to apply? The answer is that we do. At Newnham, we have run some very successful Taster Days for Year 10 students; and most colleges do the same.
Aren't interviews unfair on non-pushy kids from the maintained sector? I've never quite understood this one. Noone objects to employers interviewing young people for jobs, but the Oxbridge selection process has become demonised. In my experience an interview (and there are videos of what really happens here) is more likely to expose the "just well trained", rather than terrify the nervous. We are also very careful (using all the contextualising data about school, average results, usual HE destinations) not to exclude kids with slightly lower grades by simply not interviewing them. It is true that we dont interview everyone. But what good is served by calling a kid 300 miles away for an interview in medicine, when they have done no Chemistry and the are predicted to fail Biology A level? It would be a cruel raising of expectations.
My sense is that when you add all our efforts together -- the school visits, the open days, the summer schools, the lectures, the video performances, the teachers workshops, the collaborations of all types -- we really couldn't be doing MORE. It might, of course, be that we should be doing DIFFERENT, and that is where Milburn is right to ask for a bit more joined up thinking (even if he still comes down to pointing the finger at universities). In the end it may be convenient to rap Oxbridge over the knuckles (always a vote winner!), but we are all implicated in this -- including schools (many teachers are excellent, but some really do throw our invitations in the bin, and tell the kids that they just wouldnt fit in here), and government pundits (everytime someone comes onto the radio and says that we are biassed against the poor/ethnic minorities etc..they have just made our job in convincing them otherwise even more difficult).
Of course, these issues have been chewed over endlessly. But it is worth picking up the point made by Wendy Piatt, from the Russell Group, on the Today programme, that the stress on grades (as in the "so many thousand applicants with 3 As at A level get rejected by Russell Group universities" line) can be misleading. It is just as much the question of which subjects they are in. This isn't some old fashioned prejudice against Media Studies. It's much more the question that to do medicine you really do need more science than just biology; and engineering will often demand Further Maths.
One way forward would be to do what we have done in Classics, and add a year into the University course (some other subjects have done that, but it can be off-puttingly expensive). The other way is to look much more carefully at how we can get kids to make the right choices at A level (that's one of the reasons that we at Cambridge now try to reach them early).
But it's not entirely easy. For a start, when you're 16 and are just coming up to your GCSE's, your mind isnt likely to be on what the effect of your AS/Alevel choice might be on your ability to get into uni to read Engineering two years down the line. Schools should be thinking about exactly that. But the common transition from comprehensive to sixthform college after GCSE doesn't exactly help that particular version of joined-up thinking. I've watched kids going round the various stalls at Sixth Form College Open Evenings, as the different subjects advertised their wares -- more or less sexily. The potential students are often rightly excited by what lies ahead, and the fun of picking up Psychology, or Ancient History, or whatever. But unless everybody's eyes are on the ball (including both the feeder school and the college) they can easily end up making exciting choices that only serve to close options down later.
If I was a parent all over again it would be this moment of transition that I would be keeping my eye on.
But just one final thought that may cheer us up in a wry kind of way. Although the grass on the other side may look greener, we're not alone as a country in having intense debates and disagreement about education. Far from it. In most places in the world the educational system, its winners and losers, turns out a lightning conductor for debates about what ever particular form of inequality is bothering us. In the USA it's race (just one of many examples here). In the UK it is -- what else? -- class privilege.