Alternative routes to advancing access

Alternative routes to advancing access

Sir Peter Lampl reflects on last week’s Sutton Trust summit.
Peter Lampl on November 21, 2013
Sir Peter Lampl reflects on last week’s Sutton Trust summit.

Last week’s Sutton Trust international summit on Advancing Access and Admissions for students from low and middle income backgrounds produced plenty of headlines. John Jerrim’s research showed the extent to which achievement is not the only reason why able students don’t go to leading universities, and that this is an issue the world over. Vince Cable rightly suggested that university need not be the only route to top jobs.

Oxford’s director of undergraduate admissions, Mike Nicholson, provided the quote of the week in one panel session: “I really don’t care whether candidates are poor and bright or rich and bright. I want the bright ones. If they’re thick and rich, they’re the ones I’m hoping our process can exclude.”

But for me a fascinating lesson of the summit was the extent to which universities in different countries differ in the way they admit students.

Stuart Schmill from MIT and Rebekah Westphal from Yale described how needs blind admission – making university effectively free to children from homes with an income below $65,000 a year – is used to attract a more diverse student population.

Crucially, as Marlyn McGrath from Harvard explained, their process is designed to identify future leaders as well as create a diverse student body.  Of course they want young people with good test scores, but not necessarily the best test scores.  They want those students who are most likely to make a real contribution to the future of their country.

Sally Mapstone from Oxford and Jon Beard from Cambridge have both done a great deal to improve outreach in recent years, and they described many of the programmes they operate to link with schools and colleges, and to reach able young people wherever they are.

They are hampered by the UK’s data protection laws which make it harder to reach out to those showing potential in their school tests, but they are still much more focused on test scores than their American counterparts. That was one reason why Jon Beard was so critical of Michael Gove’s plans to do away with the links between AS levels and A levels, as Cambridge uses AS levels to predict how students will perform in their A-levels and to award provisional places on this basis.

On a completely different tack Olle ten Cate described how the entry to Dutch medical schools was based on a lottery which awards places randomly to students achieving a threshold in their school results and he lamented plans to change the system.  Aline de Salines, Director of the Fondation Dauphine in Paris, put much emphasis on supporting students from less advantaged backgrounds at university as in recruiting them in the first place.

The lesson from these contributions seems to me three-fold. First, we can all learn from each other on how to improve outreach, how to use data more effectively and how to balance grades with context. Contextual admissions, as some of our UK delegates ruefully acknowledged, are not dirty words in US university admissions, but just how it’s done.

The second lesson is on affordability. Of course, the best known US universities have large endowment funds to pay for needs blind admissions. Only Oxford and Cambridge would make the Top 20 in a US league table on endowments. But there are also other important cultural differences which were highlighted by the debate surrounding some of John Jerrim’s research.

Both the Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, in his summit address and Oxford University in a press statement complained that it was unfair to compare the cost of going to Harvard and going to Oxford, because of England’s system of contingent student loans.

Yet, the attitude to debt at top American universities is completely different. They believe students should leave university with no debt. For instance at Harvard the cost of fees and living is paid by the university on a sliding scale, and below $65,000, graduates leave debt-free, the small amount charged being paid off by a work study programme. For students from higher earning families they expect parents to contribute according to means.

As Nick Bonstow from Devon, one of our US summer school alumni who is studying at Harvard, told the Sunday Times: “At Harvard, the university offered me a selection of jobs to help pay my way. I work in the finance office and earn £144 a week for 12 hours. I think British universities should bring this kind of system in.”


  Elite UK Elite US (Private)
  Oxford Harvard
Tuition Fee 9,000 24,200
Other  costs 7,600 13,133
Annual sticker price 16,600 37,333
Annual net price (Household Income £10,000) 3,550 865
Annual net price (Household Income £27,500) 11,300 2,019
Annual net price (Household Income £41,000) 15,300 3,155
Annual net price (Household Icome £65,000) 16,600 8,243


At Oxford, which probably has the most generous bursary system in England, John Jerrim’s calculations showed that a student from a household income of £27,500 would still have to pay back £11,300 a year, with real interest rate of 3% (which is added to 2.6% RPI inflation at current rates) after they graduate. Oxford doesn’t allow term-time working, and has no comparable scheme to the Harvard work study programme, so it is likely that student will graduate with a debt of £38,000 after three years, even with generous bursaries and Government grants.

The third lesson is a very positive one. In his contribution, David Willetts announced an expansion of the Erasmus programme to enable UK students to study at European universities and he extolled the virtues of studying in the United States in a Telegraph article ahead of his speech.

The American model of a broad liberal arts education, with no rush to specialise too soon, has much to recommend it.  And this is one competitive pressure that UK universities would do well to respond to….This is exactly the sort of broad experience that this Government is keen to encourage.  In a globalised world it is as foolish to be parochial about higher education – to desperately cling onto every clever student as proof of our excellence – as it is to be insular on university research.

David Willetts also highlighted the low number of UK students to take up the sort of opportunities in the US that are on offer and he used the following graph to show how much greater the increase in traffic has been in the opposite direction.

In fact, as the Economist reported last week, there are 819,644 overseas students in the US, and fewer than 10,000 of them are British so a little over 1%. I hope that, as well as providing great opportunities to those 175 students on our summer schools in the US next summer at Harvard, Yale and MIT, their success will act as a beacon to encourage many other British state school students to consider a US degree.

In the coming months, we will also be looking more at the impact of student debt and proposing some practical ideas to help mitigate it for able young people from low and middle income homes. Last week’s summit gave us plenty of food for thought.