Is an A grade always better than a B? Not according to the government’s universities regulator, which wants top universities to go much further in admitting poorer students with lower marks.
They are right to ramp up the pressure. Universities are one of the most important levers for social mobility. A good degree is still the surest route to well-paying and secure jobs.
But while the number of disadvantaged pupils going into higher education has increased, low income students are still much less likely to get into the top universities, which are the surest route to well-paying and secure jobs.
The concentration of opportunity is stark. Our research found that eight elite schools send as many pupils to Oxford and Cambridge as almost 3,000 state schools and colleges put together. Progress on shifting this is slow.
Radical action is needed. As the Office for Students (OfS) said last week, universities must be more flexible in the grades they expect young people to achieve if we want to see real change.
This is something I’ve been arguing for years. In that time contextual admissions – where an applicant’s background is considered when deciding who to admit – has slowly become more widespread.
However, we still hear the same arguments against it. Some say that it’s dumbing down and that students won’t be able to cope; others that it’s taking places from more affluent students.
I see it very simply: this is about giving poorer students a break.
Few would agree that teenagers apply to university on an equal footing. One might have had every advantage possible – a private education, a home tutor and high aspirations from an early age. Another will have been disadvantaged from the start, by their home background, to the school they attend and the neighbourhood they grew up in.
All of these things matter in terms of the grades they are likely to get in school.
Yet our university admissions process is built on the school examination system. Most leading universities expect a low income student to achieve the same as a millionaire’s son. While universities shouldn’t have to compensate for 18 years of inequality, they should adjust their admissions processes to recognise pent up potential.
This is a practice that’s well established across the Atlantic. The Sutton Trust runs a programme with the US-UK Fulbright Commission to support bright state school students from the UK to study at top US colleges. While their system is far from perfect, we have seen first hand the importance they place on admitting students where they can add value and building a diverse class. The likes of Harvard and Yale want to nurture the leaders of the future, not just select who will get the best degrees.
Our research found that lowering university offers for disadvantaged students by just two grades would lead to a 50% increase in the number of poor pupils admitted to top universities.
We know that many British universities are already doing this. At Kings College London, they have a long-established programme that offers places at their medical school to students with Bs and Cs, but who have the potential to be doctors. Some of their first participants are now consultants.
What’s more, there’s no evidence that universities that adopt contextual recruitment have seen higher dropout rates or lower degree classifications.
Contextual recruitment is not the only issue of course. We need better support in schools to make sure low-income students apply to the right university in the first place.
Ultimately we need to move to a system where students apply only after they have their A-level results. This does away with predicted grades and unconditional offers. Having actual grades on application empowers the student. They can pick the right course at the right university with a high degree of certainty they are making the right choice.
The Government’s Social Mobility Commission said recently that social mobility in the UK had stagnated. Inequality is now entrenched in Britain from birth to work. If we are serious about addressing this now, we need more universities – and particularly the most selective ones – using and being transparent about contextual recruitment.
Sir Peter Lampl is founder and Chairman at the Sutton Trust, and Chairman at the Education Endowment Foundation.