Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I declare an interest in that I was once chair of admissions at Oxford, and I took Oxford and Cambridge college entrance exams nine times before I got a place. The subject is topical because there was a focus on Oxford University a few days ago, but it has much wider, national implications, and it is wrong to obsess about Oxford and overlook the successes of diversifying student entry throughout the country. The equal entry rate for women, which we now take for granted, is recent and heartening. At all universities, the composition is now 56.7% women, 43.3% men, so men are underrepresented. The outstanding success of some—if not all—ethnic students is remarkable. Ten per cent of all students are Asian, but they form only 7% of the population. The country has much to be proud of, and it needs to be acclaimed, not least in the effort to continue to attract international students.
We are discussing equality of opportunity, not of outcome, which is unattainable and inappropriate. Equality of opportunity to secure a place—albeit competitive—was under question in the discussions about Oxford University. How misguided most of that conversation was. There was no evidence of discrimination, in that the same proportion of BME young people went to Oxford as there are in the UK young population. For the 2017 entry, UK black students had an average offer rate of 16% across all Oxford courses. This compared with a 26% offer rate for UK white students, but there are explanations for this to come.
There should be no concept of overrepresentation or underrepresentation in considering the make-up of university students. We should eschew the notion of proportionate representation. The problem is uneven distribution of BME students among prestige colleges and among subjects. There are colleges in London where white students are in the minority. Is anyone going to complain that there are too many students from one race or religion? The notion of quotas should be alien. Restrictions on the entry of certain groups to higher education is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes.
I want to focus on solutions to the problems that exist. First, I deplore the ill-informed comments made by politicians about Oxford, not only recently but in the past: by Gordon Brown in 2000, about the state-educated applicant Laura Spence; and by David Cameron in 2005 and 2011, about black students. The impressive, expensive outreach work done by top universities is damaged by reporting that gives the impression that they discriminate against black candidates. In no other country would a senior politician speak like this about a top national university, thereby undermining its reputation and all the efforts made to open up access. In fact, nothing gives lecturers more pleasure than discovering and nurturing talent in students from less privileged homes. After all, they want the brightest to share their passion for their academic subjects, and the success of their students is their success, too.
When politicians attack Oxbridge as a bastion of white, upper-class privilege, they reinforce the prejudices of teachers, 40% of whom do not advise pupils to try Oxbridge, who tell their students that they will not get in or that it is not for the likes of them. A period of silence, or at least better information, from senior politicians would be welcome. That is what students say: 1,170 Oxford students, including BME students, have written a public letter stating,
“we fear that all this data release will have achieved is dissuading applications from those we most want to apply”.
Secondly, courses have to adapt to modern demand. Intending students not only get the wrong advice from home and school about where and what to study; they may find that the subject they most want to do in this modern age is the most competitive. National statistics show that BME students are heavily attracted to law, medicine, economics, management and computing: 40% of the black student applications to Oxford were for law and medicine, whereas only 12% of white applicants chose likewise, so of course there will be large-scale disappointment. In these popular courses, the numbers accepted are minuscule compared with, say, classics or modern languages. It is time to switch places from large, less competitive subjects to those that students today want to study. It is understandable that minorities of whatever background have had the propensity to choose a professional, safe career and believe that the luxury of studying history or geography is too risky for them, but the consumerist approach to higher education should not win out. It is about ambition, articulacy and developing critical thinking, regardless of subject. Hopefully, with better advice and the passage of time, BME students will go for a wider range of courses with a better chance of success. State school candidates show the same propensity towards certain subjects as do BME candidates.
Thirdly, the admissions system is confusing and difficult. Poorer students have less information and guidance on choosing and writing personal statements. They may not be able to afford to travel to open days. A-level over-predictions and under-predictions are both damaging. We need more transparency and consistency in the contextualisation of entry requirements. One-to-one assistance with the UCAS forms has been shown to be helpful.
Fourthly, the Government should encourage the Office for Students’ Director of Fair Access and Participation and its new national collaborative outreach programme to support the disabled, consider measures to prevent the higher dropout rate of BME students, engage parents and prepare teachers. Mental health at university is a priority. The office should ensure that every university, working with local providers, has ample and affordable childcare.
Fifthly, the Government need to restore the maintenance grant to help students who want to move away from home to the university of their choice, which may be far away. There is a wealth of evidence that BME students—Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani students, especially girls—stay in their home towns to study. This may be for cultural reasons, for fear of new surroundings, or in order to save money. However, if BME students stay in their home towns to study, then of course they are not going to be represented as they should be in Oxford and Cambridge, Durham or St Andrews. If a student borrows the full amount allowed for accommodation away from home, they can end up with a debt of £53,000 after three years, not just £28,000.
To my mind, the biggest obstacle to social mobility and diversity is the inclination—whether willing or for financial reasons—to study at the local university and live at home. This amounts to segregation, exacerbated by the Government’s misguided removal of maintenance grants. It is possible to be educated in a school that is entirely of one ethnicity, live in a similarly homogeneous neighbourhood, stay at home to go to the local university made up of the same people, pair up with someone there, then after graduation stay there too, with lower graduate earnings than might be achieved further afield. Moving long distances to study, at extra expense, is largely the preserve of the better off and the white middle class, who leave home; the rest commute. But upward social mobility is associated with moving to a large city and leaving one’s region of birth. It is pointless challenging our top universities to attract more poor and BME students if they do not have the maintenance grants to live away from home—albeit that in fact there will be more financial support from Oxford and Cambridge, if they get there, than elsewhere.
I grew up in a shabby, war-damaged part of London, now a madly fashionable suburb, and my £300 maintenance grant from the LCC enabled me to live comfortably away from home. The LCC even paid for me to travel home and back to university and threw in something extra for support in the vacations. I wish today’s students could benefit from the same farsighted largesse; instead, immobility is their lot. I imagine that many of us in this Chamber benefited from maintenance grants. I do not want to see the ladder of opportunity pulled up behind us. Let us challenge the Government to restore those life-changing grants.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on asking this important Question. It is topical, but the issue is long-standing. I declare an interest as professor of government at the University of Hull. That is relevant in the context of this Question. A report published last month by the Higher Education Policy Institute ranked Hull as the best-performing university in terms of fair access.
Throughout more than 40 years of teaching at Hull, I have benefited enormously from having students drawn from a range of backgrounds. A good number have been first-generation university students. That, I might add, applies to the parliamentary placement scheme that I have run for 30 years as part of an integrated degree programme. Such placement schemes are more akin to degree apprenticeships than they are to unpaid internships, integrating as they do academic study with work-based learning. I have seen a good number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds admitted to the programme who are now successful professionals and who have really valued the experience. Widening access brings in students who may appreciate the value of education more than those who treat university admission almost as a right.
Promoting equality of opportunity matters. It facilitates individuals reaching their full potential and making a success in life. That benefits the individual, but it is also a public good and to the economic benefit of the nation. Producing an educated and content population which makes an economic contribution enriches society. We should therefore be viewing today’s debate not as incidental to wider debates on education but as core to them.
Universities recognise the need to act—many are devoting considerable resources to outreach—but there is a lot more to do. The challenge for government and the OfS is balancing the need to encourage equality of opportunity in admissions and maintaining institutional autonomy. There is scope for the OfS to work through access and participation plans and to act as facilitator and funder of dissemination of best practice. I would also like to see greater resources devoted to encouraging applications from mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I would also like to see a holistic strategy for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, encompassing the undergraduate career and not just admissions. For those with no family background in university study, higher education can be a daunting experience. Getting them to apply for admission is necessary, but not sufficient, to enable them to get the full benefit of a university education.
I appreciate the role of government is limited, given university autonomy, but it can contribute enormously in giving guidance, promoting the case for equality of opportunity and acknowledging and applauding those HE institutions that are most successful in achieving it. I would welcome an assurance from my noble friend Lord Younger that this is what the Government will do. If my noble friend would like to visit Hull, I am sure an invitation can be arranged.
My Lords, 23 years ago I was coming to the end of lower sixth at my comprehensive school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when my history teacher asked me whether I would consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge and said that, if I did, she would help me to prepare. Until that point, fuelled by some of the messages I got from a minority of other less-supportive teachers and fellow students, Cambridge was not really for the likes of us. Could someone with a Geordie accent get through an interview? That is genuinely what we were asking ourselves. But I had advantages in supportive parents and a teacher who believed in me, and I had two wonderful interviewers at Cambridge who were enthusiastic about the work I had sent in advance, and went out of their way to put me at ease. So, like many of the students we are talking about today, first I needed awareness, and then I needed belief. But when I got my place at Cambridge, I realised this was only the start of an amazing but daunting journey.
Given the pace and rigour of the demands of university life, I have sympathy for those making decisions on admissions. I have yet to meet anyone involved in admissions at universities who does not believe passionately in widening access so that we can benefit from talent that too often stays hidden. It is right that the Government continue to push all universities to up their game, but it is a finely balanced decision, and it is only fair to all potential students to be absolutely sure they can flourish. There is only so much we can ask universities to do in the face of a postcode lottery of school performance, which I know the Government continue to address.
What steps are the Government taking to ensure greater collaboration between high and low-performing schools, including looking at better support for schools in isolated areas? I declare my interest as a member of the Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that this goes further than a list of academic grades, and often requires a boost in confidence within schools and homes? Could the Government look at the possibility of bespoke training packages for teachers in schools with poor success rates, so that all teachers are able fully to support underrepresented groups in their applications to universities? Could we encourage schools to involve parents in that process?
For me, the parts came together—home, school and university—and even then I could have done with greater resilience and a wider range of skills in order to respond to the culture change and the academic step-up that awaited me. My confidence on paper far outweighed my confidence in group discussions or presentations. I noticed that students from similar backgrounds were sometimes the same. When I worked on an outreach programme—then called Target Schools—people worried, much like I had, about their accents and presentation skills, possibly because they simply had not had the chance to hear them engaged in formal debate. Over the last two decades in various work environments, I have managed very talented young people educated in the state sector who have freely admitted that they wish there had been a greater focus on oral presentation skills at school. Can my noble friend the Minister say what the Government are doing to address this through the curriculum?
I have spoken in this House before about the need for leaders across education, business and public life to seek out a broader range of talent rather than wait for it to come to them. I genuinely believe that, by doing so, the UK will be more creative, more competitive and, frankly, a bit more interesting.
My Lords, the topic of this debate is in the context of Oxbridge, but we should surely see the issue as a broader one. A good degree has become a prerequisite for many jobs for which it was not needed in the past. In consequence, a degree is crucial for social mobility. Eighteen year-olds who have been unlucky or ill advised in their schooling or come from deprived backgrounds do not have a fair chance of access to the most selective courses, even if they have great potential—and they have no second chance.
I declare an interest as a member of Cambridge University, which spends £5 million a year on access initiatives. A special initiative targets young people in care and we are discussing a transfer year programme. Last year, 22% of our home admissions came from an ethnic minority. We take background into account in admissions, though we do not have quotas. Incidentally, we took 58 black students—not many, but a third of all black students in the country who had two A* grades. Cambridge gives a bursary to one home student in four; increasing this is a prime goal of our current fundraising. But Oxbridge could do more to widen its appeal. I would favour, for instance, a cut-back in activities that sustain a Brideshead image of extravagance and entitlement. However, even after all realistic outreach efforts, there will be high-potential young people who, through unfavourable circumstances, do not reach the bar at 18. That is why it would send an encouraging signal if Oxbridge were to reserve a fraction of its places for students who do not come straight from school but have caught up by earning credits online, at another institution or via the Open University. Indeed, I suggest to the Minister that there is a case for formalising some system of transferable credits across the whole HE system.
Some critics of Oxbridge cite America’s Ivy League as a model to which we should aspire. I would strongly contest that claim. A recent survey revealed that more than 20% of the Ivy League’s intake had families in the top 1% of income, whereas only a few percent were in the bottom 60%. Moreover, Harvard overtly offers an inside track to the children of alumni or donors—that is something that we in Oxford or Cambridge would absolutely not countenance. What makes Cambridge and Oxford special is that they combine the strength of world-class research universities with the pastoral and educational benefits of the best American liberal arts colleges. They are unique worldwide in doing that. That is why, according to a recent HEPI report, their students show a higher satisfaction rating—and work harder—than those studying elsewhere. Incidentally, in terms of student satisfaction, HEPI found little difference between Russell group and non-Russell group universities. This is not surprising, because league tables focus on research, which is, at best, weakly correlated with teaching quality.
There is in any case a need for more diversification among universities. They should not all try to compete in the same league table. So let us hope that some universities, right across the UK, emulate US liberal arts colleges in offering high-quality teaching, and thereby counterbalance the special allure of Oxbridge to students. Moreover, there is too sharp a demarcation with further education, aggravating concern about our skill levels, apprenticeship quality and so on, as compared with other advanced countries. Let us focus on these broader deficiencies, rather than just on Oxbridge.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for calling this important debate on the promotion of equality of opportunity in university admissions. The noble Baroness is impressive in so many ways but has, in particular, been a superb force in promoting real social mobility, especially during her years at Oxford.
I should like to stress the personal significance of today’s debate: I was one of the lucky ones. At a time when low academic attainment and low aspirations prevented many Welsh youngsters from applying to top universities, my comprehensive school in Swansea bucked the trend and, in the 1970s and 1980s, regularly got 10 to 15 pupils a year into Oxbridge colleges alone. These results were down to some outstanding teachers who were prepared to stand up for academic excellence and encouraged us to apply for great universities from a part of the country where there was simply no such tradition. This progress, however, is not guaranteed. Young people today harbour fears similar to those of my peers—fears about cost and value, about community and fitting in and about the life they can expect to lead during their studies and upon graduation. These are the concerns that must be addressed if we are to truly champion equality of opportunity and enable all to flourish.
There are those who seek to place responsibility for lack of opportunity with the universities themselves. This is simply not justified, and I welcome the findings of UCAS, which demonstrate that there is,
“no evidence of systemic bias in the admissions system”.
As many suspect—and despite noisy aspersions to the contrary—universities are as eager as ever to welcome the most willing and able students. It is simply not the case that the universities impede equality of opportunity; on the contrary, they are one of its strongest champions. But they will not and must not compromise on standards. Universities should be academically elitist, not socially elitist. So we must draw from the widest pool of talent but we must not ask universities to lower their standards, otherwise the product is damaged and this helps nobody.
There exists a fashionable perception that insufficient numbers of particular groups are finding their way into the universities, a claim notoriously difficult to substantiate and one that should not be accepted at face value. If true, it must be tackled at source, which is to improve the quality of primary and secondary education. The former Secretaries of State for Education, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, made encouraging progress in improving the quality of such provision with their programme of academies and free schools, which are open to all. I welcome further government efforts to advance this initiative.
The salient issue is how we reconcile extant institutional fairness with perceptions that, even if you are sufficiently capable, university might not be for you. These are students who could, and would, go to university, but do not because it is not encouraged in the communities in which they grow up or because their school teachers tell them that the universities are “not for the likes of you and me”. The solution is not to arbitrarily mandate that a certain proportion of a certain kind of young person go to university—irrespective of aptitude or preference—but rather to stimulate the imaginations of these students and inculcate in them aspirations of self-betterment and societal contribution. My alma mater, Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, seeks to do this through the implementation of a foundation year, which allows those who are capable, but who may have never considered an Oxford application, to experience the process first hand and decide for themselves afterwards whether they would like to pursue a degree at Oxford or elsewhere. We need to address practical barriers as outlined so sensibly by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, such as paying for train tickets for those schoolchildren whose families might not be able even to afford the cost of a visit.
As my noble friend Lady Wyld has said, however, the responsibility for improving equality of opportunity lies not exclusively with the universities. It is with the schools, the teachers, the families and the students themselves to believe in—and create—the change that they would like to see. In the higher education landscape of modern Britain, it truly is the case that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. It is this we must encourage, just as my teachers did for me many years ago.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for securing such a timely debate, as this week there was welcome coverage on university admissions from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
As a working-class alumni of Emmanuel College, to hear Cambridge University accept that it needs help from parents and schools prompted me to speak. I agreed wholeheartedly with the Universities Minister, when he said:
“Years ago we were having the same debate about Oxford and Cambridge as we are today, and that is very disappointing”.
I thought that 12 years after beginning work with black and minority ethnic communities we would have come further, and I believe that speaking out is one of the useful tools we all have.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, stated, only 58 first- year students of black British heritage were admitted to my old university in September last year—2.2%—whereas 7% of the total UK university first-year undergraduates are from black British backgrounds. This is despite black and minority ethnic students being overrepresented as a percentage of higher education figures. In 2016-17, 33% of first-year, UK-domiciled students were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, whereas according to the 2011 census figures for 15 year- olds only 18% were black and minority ethnic students.
Of Cambridge colleges,
“more than one in four … failed to admit a single black British student each year between 2015 and 2017”.
The university said in response:
“22% of UK students admitted as part of the 2017 admissions cycle identify themselves as having a black or ethnic minority background. This is a record high”.
There is a specific focus on recruitment for Oxbridge of candidates from the black British community. However, there is a wider issue of the concentration of black and minority ethnic students for various reasons outside the Russell group. I am pleased that the Race Disparity Unit will meet 12 vice-chancellors and the Office for Students later this month to discuss bold and ambitious responses. However, I have three further thoughts on this issue.
First, can the Minister confirm whether Her Majesty’s Government will look at recommending that the admissions process, like the Civil Service recruitment process, will be made name-blind? Secondly, the HESA data for 2016-17 outlined that only 1.6% of academic staff are black, and only 2.9% of non-academic staff. Of course, not everyone goes to university to become an academic but they want to see an institution which is inclusive and where they can see themselves.
Finally, in a debate in your Lordships’ House I outlined:
“Overall, between a third and a half of our main ethnic groups attend a religious service once a week”.—[Official Report, 6/7/15; col. 70.]
I was very pleased to learn that Oxford University has reached out to the largest UK black-led Christian denomination in the country, and I hope this model of best practice can be spread. Can the Minister outline whether the Prime Minister’s faith communities’ adviser, Jonathan Hellewell, will be looking at connecting these networks on this issue? Cambridge needs to go beyond parents and schools to look at such wider networks.
We all have a role to play in this regard. I shall be reaching out to my old college, and I hope to extend an invitation to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate to join an event organised by a network called Elevation Networks, which has over 5,000 African- Caribbean student alumni, so that we can hear directly their views on this issue. I hope that the lowest performing university, Exeter, is being proactive, as the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is an alumnus.
My Lords, I apologise to the House, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for not having been in the Chamber at the very start of this debate. This is an important debate; we have heard some impassioned speeches for social mobility, and equality of opportunity is a fine aim. However, we must beware of damaging our world-class universities by instituting systems which may reduce their reputation for academic excellence. The noble Baroness, Lady Finn, was absolutely right: we must not lower standards in our search for social mobility.
We all want youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to flourish. The best way to ensure that they do is to give them the best possible education from the start. The quick fix of offering lower entry qualifications to certain students is now widely adopted, but it is flawed. The dropout rate has risen in the last three years for our universities, and it is higher among students from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds. Research by the Social Market Foundation shows that in universities with a low proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds—less than 10%—the dropout rate was as low as 2%, but if there are more than 50% of students who have started at a disadvantage, that level escalates to as much as 15% and more. Students from disadvantaged or ethnic minority backgrounds are less likely than average to gain a first class or an upper second class degree. They start off disadvantaged, and we are at risk of seeing them finish disadvantaged.
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now being offered places at two grades lower than the average by many universities. This is not the way to do things. To embark on a university course from a lower academic level than the majority on the course puts students at a disadvantage. In the words of Reading University’s vice-chancellor, Sir David Bell, it is patronising. But worse than that, it sets people up to fail. Of course, universities can help students to overcome this handicap with extra tuition, but few have the resources to do this.
If they are to get the most out of a university education, students have to have the right foundations. That means ensuring that every child has access to a fine education from an early age. I applaud the Government’s introduction of 30 hours of free childcare a week for three and four year-olds. But I would like to think that all nurseries are nurturing their charges as effectively as the most expensive that Kensington has to offer. Children from the poorest backgrounds have the most to benefit from good education at an early age. Research shows that the benefit from age three of good nursery education is equivalent to a £10,000 to £15,000 increase in parental income. That is a big step up towards social mobility.
Higher education should be available for all, but university education is not for everyone. Technical apprentices are important, and we should all applaud the growth in apprenticeships. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rees, that the Open University is another avenue that students ought to consider. They can choose the time at which they take their course, spend longer on it if they start from a low base and do it without running up massive debts.
Whatever we do, we must not risk lowering the quality of the education our universities produce. We are now discriminating against those who come from more affluent backgrounds, which cannot be right. Universities can and should reach out to students from all backgrounds, and should be blind to those who have had a good start, just as they should be to those who have not.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for her very timely debate. Like her, I was struck by the open letter to the Guardian yesterday from Oxford students of diverse backgrounds, which expresses the real concern that all this publicity will do is to dissuade,
“applications from those we most want to apply”.
That would be unforgiveable. We know from briefings from Oxford and Cambridge, the LSE, the Russell group, Universities UK and others—and I know from first-hand experience—the amount of time, resource and money which universities and colleges devote to widening access. Many Oxbridge colleges have very substantial wealth and could do more, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, indicated, to publicise the financial support available—the bursaries and scholarships—as well as providing travel passes to those for whom the cost of travel to interview will be a deterrent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, indicated. They are all looking at admissions procedures, including the issues which the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, brought up, to help those unfamiliar with their systems, looking at additional exams and how interviews are conducted—should intrepid applicants get that far. Interview technique can let down candidates not used to looking people in the eye or proffering a handshake. Recent years have seen increases from state schools, from ethnic minorities and from disabled students, but progress is still much slower than we all wish, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, indicated, the drop-out rates are concerning.
A professor from Coventry University recently explained to me that Coventry has wide diversity and prides itself on equality. As a former polytechnic, it continues to draw many students from the local community; as we have heard, disadvantaged students tend to study in their home town rather than bear the expense of living away from home. Other former polytechnics, however high-ranking they are now as universities, will doubtless also benefit from being historically “the local university”.
The professor also made the comment that you have to start with Sure Start. I think that is right and therein lies an answer. We should not rebuke universities for lack of diversity if young people are not encouraged, from very early days, to aspire to reach their potential. What advice is given to teachers in disadvantaged schools to instil the belief and confidence in their pupils to consider Russell group universities? As we have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Wyld, how often do those on outreach to non-traditional schools hear from staff and parents that these universities are not for the likes of them? It was encouraging, therefore, to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, tell a different story. They may be concerned that disadvantaged students will feel like fish out of water in hallowed surroundings and may be more comfortable going somewhere less demanding, less exciting. But what a waste if the choice is less matched to their talents. True equality of opportunity would see students studying in places where their talents, potential and interests best lie, not restricting them to places on the doorstep.
However, equality of opportunity is not just for the young. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, indicated, we should not forget mature and part-time students, whose numbers have fallen off dramatically in recent years. Changes in funding have had catastrophic effects on these learners. I ask the Government again to look at measures that will support those who wish to engage in learning later in life, as a second chance—in conjunction with family responsibilities—and who wish generally to be able to contribute more to society by improving their education. Such valuable institutions as the Open University and Birkbeck specialise in promoting equality of opportunity, yet they have seen their numbers drop dramatically as funding changes work against the very learners the country needs to encourage.
How are careers advisers bolstering the aims and ambitions of young people? Equality in university admissions is an issue for all the educational community, from the littlest people onwards. Schools should consider it part of their educational duties to instil ambition, aspiration, self-confidence and self-awareness, too, into their pupils. Universities must try harder to break down barriers, but so too must schools, teachers and parents.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for initiating this debate, but I have to say I was surprised by the defensive stance she adopted on behalf of Oxford. I got the sense that she protested rather too much. She referred to students fearing what she termed “data release” and the idea that comment on it was responsible for dissuading students from applying to university. I certainly accept, as was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that schools need to do more for the students in terms of raising aspiration. But is the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, suggesting that information on admissions should somehow be suppressed? Surely not.
Several of the most prestigious Oxford colleges each admitted only two black British students as undergraduates in the last three years; six of Cambridge’s colleges each admitted fewer than 10 BAME students between 2010 and 2016. Surely more transparency is required on admissions, not less. As regards Oxford, Wadham College is an excellent example, admitting 68% state-school students and sitting in the top five college rankings, while making considerable efforts to widen its participation programme with visits to schools. If it can be done at Wadham, I do not see why it cannot be done at other colleges and, indeed, other universities; it points, perhaps, to a question of priorities. On the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, I think it was slightly disingenuous to refer to the overall numbers of the student population from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. The real issue, surely, is where those students are studying and what that means for career opportunities.
Widening participation is, as we know, a key part of the Government’s agenda and the Office for Students states that its aim is to make higher education more representative of wider society; we all sign up for that. Yet in nine of the Russell group’s 24 universities, the proportion of state-school pupils fell over the past year, so it seems that efforts to widen student participation at universities have hit the buffers.
There is no doubting the good intentions of both the OfS and all universities, but good intentions are without merit unless they are acted upon. One clear failing concerned the issue of unconscious bias; perhaps the most egregious example of that was in terms of the admissions process highlighted by UCAS’s own researchers last month, when they reported that more than half of all applications flagged for possible fraud were from black applicants, even though they constitute just 9% of applications. That is, surely, wholly unjustifiable and clearly the result of bias. Whether it is entirely unconscious bias is a moot point.
As I said, greater transparency in the process is necessary. We believe that every university should be obliged to publish all its access and admissions data on an annual basis. Perhaps the Minister will say whether he agrees and if not, why not. The Government cannot escape their share of responsibility. Ministers claim that unprecedented levels of disadvantaged students are going to university, but that is misleading and tells only part of the story. While more free-school-meals students are going to university than 10 years ago, the increase has not been at the same pace as the number of non-free-school-meals students going to university. Since 2010, the gap between students from independent schools going to the most selective universities and students from state schools going to those universities has risen substantially. To put it another way, disadvantaged pupils’ progression to university is as far behind that of their more affluent peers as it was seven years ago.
Of course, it is no coincidence that analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the ending of maintenance grants found students from low-income families graduating with the highest debt levels, in excess of £57,000. I am fully in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that the grant must be reinstated as a matter of urgency. No matter how much effort universities put into improving their admissions policies, much more remains to be done to reduce the barriers that prevent those from under- represented groups fulfilling their potential.
I conclude with a quote from the former Leader of your Lordships’ House and now the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, the noble Baroness, Lady Amos:
“The UK has some of the best universities in the world—but what is the point of that if we are not offering real equality of opportunity?”
I invite the Minister to offer the noble Baroness a response.
My Lords, I am pleased to answer this Question for Short Debate and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for raising the important issue of equality of access to higher education.
The Government are clear that they want to ensure that everyone with the talent and potential to succeed in higher education has the opportunity to do so, irrespective of their background. This aim is central to the Government’s reforms of higher education. My noble friend Lord Norton said that it was core to what we should be doing to promote aspiration, and he is correct.
Admission to higher education is of course an issue where the autonomy of higher education providers plays a significant role. Universities rightly have autonomy over their admissions. In fact, as this House will no doubt remember, the Higher Education and Research Act goes considerably further than previous legislation in recognising this principle.
Of course, admission to higher education is a complex issue, and higher education providers are best placed to decide which students are appropriately qualified or have the potential to succeed on a course. However, the Government can act, and, to reassure my noble friend Lord Norton, they have asked the new regulator for higher education, the OfS, to push higher education providers to make more progress on access and participation for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups more generally. We want providers to go further.
Our first guidance to the Office for Students in February this year set out the Government’s priorities for access and participation. The OfS will now focus not only on access to higher education but on retention, attainment and progress into employment or further study for these groups of students. We have also specifically asked the OfS to focus on priorities, including the gap in outcomes covering retention, attainment and progression from higher education for different groups of students, such as the attainment of black students in higher education, and to work with the sector to ensure that the funding being spent by the sector is based on evidence and has an impact.
It is important to look at what the data on entry shows. There has been significant progress in widening access to higher education, but there is still more to do. University application rates from 18 year-olds for full-time study remain at record levels: the proportion of disadvantaged 18 year-olds entering full-time higher education increased from 13.6% in 2009 to 20.4% in 2017.
There is also progress in the number of students from ethnic minority backgrounds entering higher education. Eighteen year-olds from ethnic minority backgrounds are now more likely to go to university than ever before. Black 18 year-olds have also seen the largest increase in entry rates to full-time higher education over the period, increasing from 27% in 2009 to 40.4% in 2017—a proportional increase of 50%. However, although we have seen record proportions of disadvantaged 18 year-olds entering selective universities, those from the most advantaged areas in the country remain 5.5 times more likely to enter selective institutions than their disadvantaged peers.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is concerned that the recent debates in the media on admissions detract from the efforts being made across the higher education sector to address these issues, and we share those concerns. We need to raise aspirations, not limit them. We know that the most selective institutions, including Oxbridge, are already taking steps to address these issues, but, although progress has been made, there is more that they can do. As has been said in today’s debate, both institutions have acknowledged that in the press in recent days. The Government have specifically asked the OfS to challenge the more selective institutions to make greater progress in widening access to higher education.
As part of this broader debate on admissions, there have been suggestions that universities should consider the courses they offer to help attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised this very point. It is clearly a matter for higher education providers to determine the types of courses they wish to offer, but it is right that universities should look to the future and consider the courses that they offer for a changing world.
Clearly—a point that has not been mentioned today—good careers advice is key, and our national careers strategy set out what we plan to do. Work is now under way, co-ordinated by the Careers & Enterprise Company, to help schools and colleges to develop and deliver careers programmes in line with world-class career benchmarks. This will help people to choose the career that is right for them.
I am pleased to see the announcement of the year 3 TEF results at institutional level. I also welcome the introduction of the subject-level pilots, which will help prospective students compare the different courses on offer across institutions—not just the institutions themselves—and shine a light on course quality.
The subjects available at university and careers guidance are important. However, the overriding factor in predicting access to higher education remains the prior educational attainment of pupils. Making progress on access is a matter not just for higher education but for the education system as a whole. I note the ideas raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rees, to better encourage disadvantaged pupils to make the cut, such as online credits. However, Cambridge has made it clear in recent days that it will not lower standards—a point made vehemently and quite correctly by my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft.
The noble Lord, Lord Rees, raised the question of formalising transferable credits across the higher education system—a point raised during the passage of the legislation last year. Through the new regulatory framework, higher education providers must provide the OfS with, and publish information about, their arrangements for students who transfer.
We recently published our response to the Schools that Work for Everyone consultation. This includes a package of measures to foster cross-sector collaboration to improve outcomes for pupils across the education system and create new good school places that are accessible for all children.
Many higher education providers engage in outreach activities to build aspirations and encourage access and participation in higher education, working closely with schools. Through access agreements for 2018-19, universities and further education colleges plan to spend around £197 million on outreach activities, and the OfS encourages providers to work with not only potential applicants but parents and carers from primary school age upwards.
I took note of the comments made by my noble friends Lady Wyld and Lady Finn. My noble friend Lady Wyld in particular made the point that she felt very fortunate to go to a school with a positive teacher and to have positive parents who were able to encourage and push her. My noble friend Lady Finn similarly stated that she was a beneficiary of that. We should do as much as we can to promote all schools to push students to reach their best potential. I will write to my noble friend Lady Wyld about her important point about encouraging schools to promote presentational skills. Many independent schools do that as a matter of course and I know that it gives pupils a lot of confidence if they are encouraged to present on a regular basis—it becomes a matter of course.
Through the new Office for Students we continue to fund the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. This has set up consortia involving universities, colleges and schools targeted at years 9 to 13 in areas where higher education participation is low. Given the depth of their expertise, many higher education providers are establishing stronger long-term relationships with schools such as school sponsorship, opening free schools and supporting mathematics education in schools.
As the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Garden, said, there are some concerns that disadvantaged students and those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds tend to study at institutions closer to home. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, cited a range of potential disadvantages for the student of this, and she is right. The work under way to raise aspirations should help and we also need to ensure that advice is available so that these students consider all the options available to them. Particular support may also be required for these students, including pastoral and other services such as childcare provision, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, mentioned. My noble friend Lady Finn mentioned travel help, which is another important point. Providers will need to consider the full range of support that they provide for their students, and many already take these responsibilities seriously.
The IFS report published today shows the importance of students selecting the right institution and the right subject in determining future earnings. This puts to bed the myth that differences in eventual earnings can be attributed solely to class and academic performance during school. After controlling for prior attainment and background, the researchers found significant differences between the earnings of graduates across different subjects and providers. These findings imply that studying the same subject at a different institution can yield a very different earnings premium. The choices that students make about what and where to study matter—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson.
To ensure that we see real progress, the OfS will be able to take action if a provider does not comply with its obligations, including on the access and participation of students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. My noble friend Lord Norton asked about encouraging applications from mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We agree that studying later in life brings considerable benefits and we have had several debates in this House on that subject. We intend to provide financial support to part-time students—the main route of study for this group, similar to that for full-time students.
The OfS has access to a range of interventions and sanctions which incentivise improvements. They include placing additional registration conditions on providers, suspending providers from the OfS register and imposing monetary penalties on a provider. This means that the new regulator has a range of measures—it has teeth—to address areas of concern.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, raised an important point about mental health, which is a growing issue, particularly in universities. It is a priority for the Government and is a cross-government issue. Our children and young people’s mental health Green Paper outlines our plans to set up a new national strategic partnership. The noble Baroness spoke at some length about the possibility of offering a maintenance grant. We recognise those concerns and, as she will know, the post-18 review will consider and address how disadvantaged students and learners receive living costs support.
My noble friend Lady Berridge suggested that admissions could be name blind—I think that that was her expression. That is a matter for the sector. UCAS looked at the impact of a name-blind application and found no conclusive evidence of any impact in a report published in 2017—but I will look again at the point she made.
Considerable progress has been made in widening the access and success of students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. However, more could be done; we want to see progress made and have charged the OfS to lead that. A key reform in this area is the introduction of the transparency duty through HERA, an important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. The duty requires certain HE providers to publish data on the application, offer, acceptance, completion and attainment rates of students, which can be broken down by ethnicity, gender and socio- economic background.
To conclude, this greater transparency, which again is a very important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will shine a spotlight on where higher education providers need to do more to widen the access and success of students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. We have seen some progress and we are expecting to see more. We must not, as my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft said, set up these groups to fail. Far from it; we must ensure that the admissions process at universities is robust enough to ensure the future success of the student, and on into a successful career.