James Turner stresses that access initiatives aren’t mutually exclusive.

When you are promoting a programme that you feel passionately about and which many people have worked hard to make happen, there is a danger of presenting things in black and white terms, even though the reality lies in the shades of grey in between.   I have blogged before about our US summer school programme and my colleague reported on another fantastic summer of visits to US universities in August. But it would be wrong to think that we believe for all students that the US experience is top of the tree and anything else is second best.  We are equally alive to the issues around access to elite US universities as we are around fair admissions to top UK universities. This is one of the topics we’ll be discussing at our international summit on access to higher education, here in London in November.

So while everyone at the Sutton Trust is passionate and excited about the impact of our US programme, we are just as committed to our activities promoting progression to UK universities – a cause we have been advocating and investing in for more than fifteen years. What we are interested in is the central proposition that when an excellent educational opportunity exists, it should be open to all young people who can benefit, not just those with the most money.  We want young people from low and middle income homes to be able to make informed choices about their futures – and to raise their sights just as high as the young men and women at top independent schools, whose success was set from day one.

So our US programme isn’t really about which higher education system is superior, or whether or not we’re encouraging brain drain from the UK (the low chances of securing a work visa mean they’ll come back anyway).   Rather, the winners are the students.  They are in a better position to make the right choice about their futures – and whatever that is, the experience they have during our US programme will stand them in good stead.  Indeed, we found this year again that, for some students, the UK is the right option and that crystalises during their time on campus in the US and in conversation with US academics, admissions tutors and undergraduates.   It is very credible, I would have thought, for a young person to say, “I have stood in Harvard Square, I have been in labs at MIT and in a lecture a with a top Yale professor; but I am convinced that Bristol, or Durham or Nottingham is the university for me.‎”  That truly is an informed decision.

Of course, we naturally hope that many students will end up in the US and it will be a life transforming experience.  The financial aid packages, the liberal arts degree, the chance to gain international experience are all huge pluses for many young people. Certainly, 21 of the first 64 students on the pilot US programme thought so, and they’re now in the US in their first semesters at a range of leading American universities with all expenses paid.

But even then we are asked‎ whether this is fair – is it right to pluck a student from a backwater of Britain into one of the world’s most prestigious learning establishments, hundreds of miles from home? What about those left behind?  I think this criticism is wrong on two counts.  First, it assumes that when young people are successful, they will abandon their home towns, friends and family and head for the lights without a backward glance.  Second, I wonder what the logical consequence of those concerns is – that the aspirations of non-privileged young people should be kept in check?  That we shouldn’t encourage them to set their sights any higher than the context into which they were born? From our programmes we see clear benefits not only for the individuals involved, but for the economy – which wastes less talent – and for schools and communities, through a trickle-down effect.  It underlines that these are possibilities open to them and their peers – and if one person can do it, so can others.

A bold programme will always attract comment.  But I do think that we spend too much time on false dichotomy.  You can be interested in access to universities generally and also in who gets into the most selective institutions; you can worry about vocational routes into employment and be concerned about the makeup of the elite professions; and you can support bright students to‎ consider US higher education while being committed to access to excellence at home. ‎ And giving a low/middle income student the chance to flourish at the highest level doesn’t fundamentally change who they are – in fact, it starts to change the culture and attitudes of others at the highest levels.

There are certainly enough bright young people out there.  The pity is there are not enough opportunities for them‎.

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