Sol Gamsu covers the Sutton Trust’s research on university admissions in an article for the Guardian.
Elitism and Oxbridge: it is the hardy perennial of debate about the state of our universities. Last month yet another report – this one from the Sutton Trust – highlighted the extent to which Oxford and Cambridge remain dominated by students from the south-east of England, many of them selected from a small number of elite fee-paying and selective state schools.
The stark inequity of Oxbridge and Russell Group admissions has been a recurrent theme for at least a decade. Despite genuine efforts to increase access for students from marginalised communities, progress has been achingly slow. So it’s easy to see why access to elite institutions has come to be seen as the litmus test of how equal our higher education system is. But a preoccupation with squeezing a few more poorer students through the narrow gates of elite colleges, desirable though that is, has eclipsed the real problem bedevilling our university system: a fair deal for the institutions that are educating everybody else.
In post-1992 universities, funding has been slashed and finances threatened for access and foundation courses in further education colleges, and for learning courses in community centres. And in the post-2010 era of cuts, the notion of lifelong learning has virtually fallen off the radar. Combining an austerity agenda with increasing tuition fees was not compatible with an egalitarian notion of access to education. It was much easier to focus attention on numbers of young people from working-class and ethnic-minority communities entering elite universities, than on older students doing access courses at FE colleges or taking part-time degrees at former polytechnics or the Open University. The fairytale of social mobility for a few trumped the less glamorous reality of educational access for the many. As a result, education policy has become dominated by the impossible dream of perfect social mobility.
The beginnings of a new educational politics are visible in places like Lincoln and Leicester; what is needed among researchers and policymakers is the courage to respond collectively to foster and deepen these ideas. If education is to be transformational and to play a role in the economic, social and regional redistribution our country needs, then those who work in universities have to question what our collective role is and what we want it to be. And the answer has to be bigger than widening access to Oxford and Cambridge.