Today the government released a report which shows that there has been no improvement in participation at the most selective universities among the least advantaged young people since the mid-1990s.
How can this be the case when universities are spending more than ever before on widening participation?
One problem is that universities have historically been very bad at spending wisely. Bursaries are not effective at increasing access (they only help the students who have won their places already) – yet these still suck up the majority of universities’ spending.
Things are changing. A couple of years ago I got into a row with the then president of Oxford University’s student union. Her big plan to increase access was to put on more open days; I argued that unless Oxford invested in long-term intervention that began when disadvantaged students were still young, these open days would be as big a waste of money as the bursaries. Now the oil tanker of university’s widening participation departments has started to turn, and more universities wants to work in close partnership with local schools, investing in academic support programmes. And although loathe to admit it publically (imagine the Daily Mail’s rage!), all Russell Group universities now make students from disadvantaged backgrounds lower offers. So far so good.
The other two elements to the access equation are the schools, and the students themselves.
Taking schools first, I’ve noticed a sea-change in attitudes to Russell Group access since I started teaching in 2005. When I arrived at my Teach First school roughly one student won a place at a top tier university every two years (this statistic is vague because no one bothered to track it!) When I started planning the programme that has become The Access Project, one teacher complained to my face that I was a cultural imperialist and that I wanted to turn the students into ethnic minority clones of myself. However, things have got better. Now when I pitch The Access Project at a new school, teachers’ eyes light up as they realize this could help ‘fix’ their Russell Group access problem, and they ask where on the contract they need to sign.
Of course, schools having the right attitude is only part of the solution. Their core role in improving the situation is in teaching more effectively. It’s tough to decide whether teaching now is better than it used to be – as is well known, comparing average exam scores year to year is misleading – but anecdotally I can’t help feeling that teaching is a far more professional and technical occupation than it used to be, and that students learn more.
So with schools the news is also good. The last element to the equation is students. I’ve never believed that lack of aspiration has held students back. I admit that I’ve only ever taught in London, and teachers in places like Burnley assure me that generational lack of aspiration is their biggest curse. But my experience is that if you scratch beneath the façade of wanting to be a footballer or a rapper, every 14 year old wants a degree from a famous university.
So why the poor statistic on state school access to Russell Group access?
The problem is that this is a dynamic battlefield. Private schools are improving at an even faster rate than state schools. In fact there is such a race for excellence amongst the top private schools, it’s scary. For example, at the most expensive private schools in Kensington, where class size is limited to 15, more than 75% of students also have a private tutor. 10 year olds rush from extra Latin class to archery class to piano lessons. It’s sick, but by the time these rich students reach 18, they’ll write a mean personal statement.
There is one further problem. State school students often make bad decisions when applying to university. And the more disadvantaged your background, the more likely you are to make an unwise decision.
For example, poorer students are disproportionally likely to apply for the most competitive subjects, such as Medicine, Law, and Business and Economics. This is largely because these subjects are seen as more likely to result in a good job. Conversely, poorer students are disproportionally less likely to apply for joint-honours degrees, despite the fact that top tier universities tend to give lower offers for these courses. In addition, on average poorer students apply to universities that are closer to their homes than their more middle class peers. This is a mistake because being prepared to travel gives you more options, and because universities in the regions such as Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, Glasgow and Aberdeen, make comparatively low offers in relation to their strong academic reputations.
I got fed up with seeing my students making bad decisions when applying to university, so I’ve started a new social enterprise, Unifrog, to try to do something about it. What’s unusual is that rather than encouraging students to study harder or aspire higher, Unifrog is about giving students the data they need to make excellent decisions.
To get to the root of the poor decision making, last summer I watched over my students’ shoulders as they did their research into which universities they wanted to apply to. There was lots of hopeless hopping between the UCAS site, university league tables, and the universities’ own sites. Students only clicked on universities whose names they recognized, and they didn’t find out any data on the courses beyond what the entry requirements were.
I thought this was ironic given the wealth of information available. Students could compare courses on factors such as the proportion of coursework versus exams, the ratio of male to female students, and the average starting salary of graduates who have done that course.
It seemed particularly strange not to make use of this data because it’s become normal to make sophisticated data comparisons when, for example, buying a mobile phone. And it’s even harder to understand when you consider that the degrees being chosen will cost in the region of £30,000 – these decisions are worth getting right.
It’s true that private school students are faced with the same morass of information when trying to choose their universities. But it’s not uncommon for an average-size independent school to have 3 full-time staff helping students navigate their university applications, whereas the comprehensive where I taught has half a person, and is a larger school. In addition, most of my students are the first in their family to apply for university, so they are doing the research largely on their own.
Spurred on by my market research, I worked with a small team to develop an online tool which makes it easier for students to make sensible decisions when it comes to choosing the five universities on their UCAS form.
When students log-in to Unifrog, they first have to consider a wide range of possible degree subjects (the tool will suggest, for example, ‘Anthropology with a year abroad’ if a student types in ‘History’). Secondly the tool encourages students to choose courses with a range of entry requirements: we match entry requirements to students’ likely academic performance, and they have to select some courses at the top, middle and bottom of their range. Next students can compare every course in the UK on 12 data points – everything from the distance from their home, to the cost of tuition fees, to the average student satisfaction rating. Students use this data to whittle down their longlist to just five choices, and then Unifrog makes it easy for students to book open days at the universities on their shortlist.
Since launching, we’ve been selling subscriptions to schools (allowing all their students unlimited use of the tool) at a rate of about 1 per day, which is far more than we’d been expecting. We’ve had heartwarming feedback, including the headteacher of my Teach First school telling me, ‘I think it’s wonderful. I wish Unifrog was around when I was a student!’ and another headteacher saying 'Unifrog empowers our students to make excellent university choices.'
I don’t think Unifrog will be the major player in improving access to top universities. But I’m glad that we are in the game.