Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and former CEO of the Sutton Trust.
Like all statistics, university admissions data are wonderfully manipulative things. Today’s UCAS figures might lead you to conclude that universities’ social mobility efforts require just a little nudge to vanquish inequality over the next decade. The admissions service estimates that the country’s 38 most selective universities would each only need to admit an extra 70 disadvantaged students in England annually to close the equality gap in their admissions by 2030. Surely even the most prestigious institutions could enrol an extra couple of classes of state school pupils every year?
The problem is that this tantalising target unravels when you do the sums. Over a ten-year period the cumulative total of these new entrants across 38 universities is 26,660. That’s a lot of students requiring high A-level grades. In the contested battleground of elite university admissions, it’s a seismic swing in the make-up of degree places.
The historical reality is that diversifying intakes has been hard-won, steady but slow progress. That’s why UCAS, using its own measure of disadvantage (the Multiple Equality Measurement), also reports a more sobering statistic: on current trajectories, the admissions gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students will take 332 years to close.
These calculations echo those we published in our HEPI report a year ago. We found that it would take nearly a century for highly-selective universities in England to raise the participation rate of young people from the least advantaged areas to the existing participation rate for young people from the most advantaged areas. This would be needed to meet the Office for Students’ targets to end equality gaps in higher education.
These estimates are conservative as they presuppose that societal inequalities outside the university and school system will remain unchanged over the coming years. In fact universities will more likely have to run faster just to stand still.
Research I’m involved in has revealed stark and widening inequalities in learning losses and achievement among school pupils in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I’ve proposed a one-off special flagging system alongside exam grades in 2021 to identify a minority of pupils who have been most seriously affected by COVID-19. This would allow universities to take their extenuating circumstances into account when judging the grades.
The upheaval brought by the Coronavirus offers an opportunity to think outside the box. We need to up our game on widening access to universities, particularly the most selective institutions. The recommendations made in our 2019 HEPI report are even more pressing in the post-pandemic world, where there will also be growth in student numbers and more competition for degree places.
Some reforms that have long been mooted now look more likely. I’ve welcomed the Government’s plans for a Post-Qualification Application (PQA) system with students applying to university after receiving their A-Level grades. This would sweep away the barriers that have for too long stymied prospects of underpredicted poorer students.
It’s also time to introduce comprehensive and transparent use of lower grade offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities in England should produce two published offers for degree courses: a standard entry requirement and a minimum entry requirement, of up to three A-Level grades lower across three A-Levels (so BBB compared with AAA, for example).
The Office for Students meanwhile should challenge highly-selective universities to expand student numbers in innovative ways to diversify intakes, including degree apprenticeships, foundation years and courses for part-time and mature learners. Failing to find ways of expanding university places will prompt acrimonious battles over who secures degree places – ‘a clash of the classes’.
But the most powerful reform arguably would be to create social mobility rankings for universities, measuring outcomes for disadvantaged students. Such rankings already exist for employers and universities in the United States, and they are long overdue.
Current university league tables have chilling effects on universities’ efforts to promote social mobility. Universities gain higher rankings for the higher A-Level entry grades they demand – a direct disincentive to award lower grade contextual offers or consider applicants without traditional academic qualifications. The tables do not generally measure the gains made by students.
We need to convince newspaper compilers to reform current league tables. These are the statistics manipulating university behaviour. Dropping down the newspaper rankings is the last thing any vice-chancellor wants. If left unchanged, the tables will continue to damage the prospects of disadvantaged students for years to come.