Lee Elliot Major responds to George Monbiot in The Guardian.

It is absolutely right for George Monbiot to describe the continued dominance of the social elite among the upper echelons of professional and public life as “grotesque, invidious and socially destructive” (Plan after plan fails to make Oxbridge access fair. There is another way, 25 May).

It is also true that these trends are fuelled largely by the exclusive intakes of Oxbridge and other elite universities, which in turn reflect the educational inequalities that emerge so early in children’s lives, and widen thereafter.

But the key finding highlighted by the Office for Fair Access‘s recent report is not that “the proportion of poor students these universities accept has fallen over the past 15 years”, as Monbiot claims, but something arguably much more disturbing. The starkest gap is between children from the richest (actually most highly educated) 20% of homes in England, who continue to dominate elite admissions, and the rest. Elite university access is not just a problem for the underprivileged, but for the 80% of children not lucky enough to benefit from the small cadre of independent and state schools that supply the lion’s share of Oxbridge candidates.

Monbiot’s scathing verdict on outreach schemes is: “None of them work. The elaborate schemes supposed to widen access to the UK’s top universities – the summer schools, the mentoring programmes, the taster days, the bursaries and scholarships – have failed.” But who knows how much worse these statistics would be were it not for the schemes undertaken by universities during the last decade? Thousands of state pupils have benefited from Sutton Trust summer schools – many of whom are now Oxbridge graduates.

Under Monbiot’s “short and simple solution” – originally proposed, as he says, by the journalist Peter Wilby – Oxford and Cambridge would “offer places to the top one or two pupils from every school, regardless of grades. The next-best universities would offer places to the pupils who come third and fourth, and so on downwards.” The attraction of this radical scheme is that it would create a powerful incentive for middle-class parents to send their children to lower-performing schools, and broaden the social mix of all schools.

Unfortunately, this solution is, in its purest form, unworkable. Universities live or die by the academic standards they uphold. No elite university would allow students on to its degree courses unless they had shown that they could survive and flourish in an academically demanding environment – irrespective of how highly ranked they may have been at their school. To do so could be disastrous for the student and the university.

Our trust reviewed the use of percent schemes, which adopt a similar approach to those in the United States, when developing our pilot scheme, now operating at Exeter and Leeds universities. Students are identified early in local schools serving disadvantaged areas, but given support by the universities over a number of years so they make the grade when they are 18. The impact of the scheme is currently being measured by a randomised trial. This is not the simple fix for low social mobility that we all wish for. But, unlike most education reforms, we will know whether it works or not.

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