Private schools warn of potential class bias

Plans by universities to increase participation from underrepresented groups have drawn a critical response from leading private schools. The schools were responding to a report, Transforming opportunity in higher education, published by the Office for Students (OfS). The report analyses access and participation plans submitted by universities and other higher education providers to the OfS for the period 2020-21 to 2014-25.

In 2015 the government lifted the student admissions cap, and subsequently student numbers at many universities have increased, in some cases dramatically. However, the access gap between the most and least advantaged has changed very little, with young people from advantaged areas of England more than six times as likely to attend selective institutions - including Oxford, Cambridge and other members of the ‘Russell Group’ of universities - as those from disadvantaged areas.

The OfS says that its analysis of universities’ latest plans shows they have ‘commitment’ and ‘high levels of ambition’ on tackling inequalities and ‘reducing the gaps between underrepresented students and their peers’. The plans also have the potential to cut the access ratio to less than 4:1 by 2025 according to the OfS.

But the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), which represents many leading independent schools, responded to the OfS report by expressing fears that attempts to widen access could lead to ‘discrimination’ against private school pupils. Mike Buchanan, HMC Executive Director, said: ‘We urge the Government to enable universities and colleges to expand to take as many truly suitable students as necessary, rather than rob some students of a future to award it to others.’ He urged caution on ‘starting actively to discriminate against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into.’ Mr Buchanan said that contextual admissions (where additional information beyond a student’s grades – such as school performance data or the socio-economic background of applicants – are taken into account in admissions decisions) were ‘perfectly reasonable if used on a sophisticated, individual basis.’, but ‘should not be about school type’. Mr Buchanan argued that ‘independent schools play an important role in getting disadvantaged students into university through offering free and discounted places.’

Chris Millward, director of fair access and participation at the OfS, commeted in defence of the expectation that universities should seek to widen access, saying: ‘We expect providers to work towards these targets because they tackle two urgent priorities: the need to open up all of our universities to people from those communities where progress into higher education is lowest, and to ensure that every student has the same chance to succeed once they get there.’

Full OfS report: 

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July 13, 2020 (PDF 1.94 MB)

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