University Access and Educational Unfairness

University Access and Educational Unfairness

Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists the tackle issues affecting students today. With UCLove demonstrating an animosity between private and state educated students, Alexandra Hill considers why this occurs and whether these attitudes are justified.

Frequently discussed within UCL and other universities as a whole is the issue regarding the ratio of private school to state school students and how, in many cases, this ratio differs significantly from the respective numbers in the general population, particularly among the UK’s top universities.  In UCL, the number of private school students typically stands at over 30% as opposed to the 7% in the general population.

We should no doubt be concerned by this evident inequality of outcome, but the present nature of the debate infiltrating UCL, notably on the UCL Facebook page UCLove, often blames UCL’s admissions process or suggests that private school students are simply handed a top university place on a plate thanks to their fortunate backgrounds.  A recent post on this page by a UCL student from a Public school background complained that they felt ‘shamed’ by poorer students and similarly patronising comments are directed at private school students along the lines of: “mummy and daddy paid for your private school”.  Such a narrative is simply unhelpful and counterproductive, not taking account of the reason why such a situation emerges.

In the UK, the harsh reality is that many students lack the academic opportunities to thrive and gain access to elite universities.  The reasons for this are broad and numerous: class sizes are a key factor – whilst classes of 30+ students are not uncommon in a state school setting, resulting in students receiving very little one-on-one time with a teacher, in a private school, class sizes are normally far smaller, so students get valuable individual time with teachers. Equally, the expectations on students vary starkly. Whilst in a private school, students are set high standards and told to be ambitious with university applications, motivating them to apply to leading institutions; in state schools there is often not this degree of motivation. In fact, a study by the Sutton Trust showed that four in ten state school teachers discouraged academically gifted students from applying to leading Russell Group universities, often because the teachers held inaccurate stereotypes about certain institutions.

By consequence, we arrive at a situation where attainment in private schools far exceeds state schools: with the 13.6% of private school A-Level entries achieving 30% of overall A* grades. In many cases as well, even academically able students from state schools, who meet or exceed the entry requirements for courses at top universities like UCL, are not motivated or encouraged to apply by their teachers.

Although it is understandable that some state school students at UCL feel ‘put-out’ that some of their private school peers have had, in many cases, an easier ride to get to UCL, as a virtue of their better academic opportunities, suggesting they are somehow less ‘worthy’ of their place is both not constructive and is actually quite insulting.  To also suggest that UCL’s admissions process is to blame and that they are somehow favourable to those with private school backgrounds is not a fair assumption, as their job is solely to recruit the highest calibre of individuals to the institution.  Despite this, UCL’s outreach programmes do endeavour to help attract students from lower income backgrounds through an extensive range of bursaries and lower entry requirements, such as the UCL Undergraduate Bursary for which all home and EU students that have household income of less than £42,875 are considered for, but given the failures of the state education sector in enabling poor but academically gifted children to thrive, there is little more they can do without undermining their reputation and academic standards as an elite institution.

Hence, the fact we have such high numbers of private school students at top universities, like UCL, cannot be addressed through insulting those fortunate enough to be privately-educated, or in criticising the admissions system. Instead, we have to look at the root-cause of the issue: the state education sector and the attainment gap, an issue that has always existed but has arguably become more pronounced as British state sector education falls behind other education systems internationally, with decreasing funding per pupil and increasing class sizes leading to lessons being taught in highly mixed ability groups.  Likewise, although some ‘snobbishness’ towards privately-educated pupils may have existed before in high calibre universities, using this excuse nowadays is avoiding the problem, especially when universities are, on the most part, doing a lot to increase access for the disadvantaged, through a diverse range of access schemes that aim to make themselves as accessible to less advantaged students.

Although private school students do arguably get better guidance upon how to successfully apply to elite institutions, including the required A-Level subjects as well as extracurricular activities, a great deal of outreach has demystified the process for many state school students.  We see large numbers of taster day programmes offered by top-tier universities, which provide valuable admissions advice for prospective students, particularly those who are not provided with such information from their schools.

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, addressing this complex and multi-faceted problem is not straight-forward, with many, often conflicting, solutions offered by figures from politics and education. However, engaging with the debate on education is far more conducive to change than mindless insults or unfair criticisms.

Image Credit: Chris Chabot via Flickr