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What’s the best way to get more disadvantaged students to the most selective universities?

  • 31 May 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Last week began with news that one of the oldest and richest colleges at one of England’s oldest and richest universities is on the way to raising £25 million to deliver debt-free degrees to 40 people from low-income households.

That sounds like good news. It is to be, we are told, ‘the most generous student finance support in the country’.

  • Who could oppose more people from very low-income backgrounds getting an extra nudge to attend a very selective university, and to have the chance to emerge at the other end debt free?
  • People are at liberty to spend their own money how they wish and, if some rich donors want to support our educational institutions, it seems odd to respond in any way other than to welcome it wholeheartedly.
  • The initiative also makes sense if you accept that the oldest universities are competing with the world’s most selective institutions. If people can get free places elsewhere, UK universities need to keep up.

And if you thought (as some people do) that – one day – institutions like Oxbridge might be freed from the apparent shackles of tuition fee caps, then you might want to prepare now for a different future: one in which students from rich families pay huge fees and those from poorer families get in for free, with lots of cross-subsidy from the former to the latter.

Yet the announcement by St John’s College, Cambridge, was greeted by some with regret. The reason is the opportunity cost. If £25 million is available to deliver more access to selective higher education, there are other uses for the money that might have more impact.

Is it in the long-term interest of the HE sector to undermine the rationale behind student loans?

To evaluate the new scheme in the round, it is necessary to consider the following.

  1. The scheme appears to be aimed primarily at home students, who are generally entitled to taxpayer-backed student loans. They do not have to pay fees upfront (and receive support for maintenance too). Some people are expected to pay very high costs upfront because they are not entitled to student loans (including, asylum seekers and people coming to the UK to study from some of the poorest countries in the world) but they do not appear to be the target of this scheme.
  2. The defining feature of income-contingent student loans is that the repayments are linked to income after study. If you earn little, you pay back little (or nothing) and taxpayers pick up the tab; if you earn more, you pay back more (and those on the highest earnings pay back more than the cost of their degree due to loan interest). The new free-degree offer puts more focus on someone’s financial means on entry rather than their income after exit, even though studying at somewhere prestigious typically means substantial financial rewards after graduation (on average). It is worth asking if it is in the long-term interest of the higher education sector to undermine the rationale behind taxpayer-backed student loans.
  3. The new scheme was launched with the claim that ‘high-potential pupils from low-income families, and young people leaving care, are deciding against university because of the prospect of significant debt.’ If this is true – and there was a lack of supporting evidence – it would suggest action should be taken. But that does not have to be spending £51,000 each on a small number of students. Perhaps spreading information on student support and the benefits of higher education would be a more efficient way to do it? It is a big jump to think the best answer is to pay all fees and living costs upfront when these are already covered by other support (government-backed loans and other initiatives).
  4. It is well known what works well in widening access. Broadly speaking, it is reaching people earlier than the point at which they are deciding which college to apply to at one of the most selective universities. Indeed, such decisions are generally made by people who have already built up a stellar track record and who are almost always on a clear path to higher education already.
  5. One particular problem at Oxbridge is a shortage of places relative to demand (especially this year, as last year’s bulge intake driven by A-Level grade inflation works its way through the system). Some of the most effective access initiatives seek to provide additional places – and I have previously argued there are strong arguments for founding new Oxbridge colleges. But there is nothing to suggest the newly funded places are additional to existing ones. Without more places, competition becomes more fraught because, while the top of the funnel of applicants becomes more congested, the bottom of the funnel is no wider. The result is more pressure builds.
  6. Aside from providing more places, there is also a need for other initiatives to improve access, including more outreach, more foundational summer school programmes and education to reduce the number of teachers who would not recommend uber-selective institutions to their pupils. Rigorous comparative evaluations may find free-degree schemes are less efficient and add less value than these alternative approaches.
  7. Some students struggle after entry to very selective institutions. It might be for financial reasons (given, for example, the discouragement of term-time paid work), it might be for mental health reasons, it might have to do with the academic workload, it might be down to feeling out of place or it might be for cultural reasons. While very few students once started do not complete their degree at Oxbridge, it is clear some could do with more support while they are there. Is it better to spend money on improving the lot of a greater number students rather than funding the entire costs of a few?
  8. Perhaps St John’s new offer is about attracting people who might otherwise study elsewhere – in other words, perhaps it is less about widening participation and more about competing for students against the world’s other very selective institutions. But the historic dominance of Oxbridge means people with an offer from either Oxford or Cambridge do not generally need a huge financial incentive to accept it. (While it is true, as this week’s Sunday Times reported, that the most prestigious UK private schools are sending more people to the US for higher education, these are not the students being targeted by the new initiative.) Some people do turn Oxbridge down but they rarely do so on financial grounds alone and, if someone is persuaded by the new cash to take up a place at St John’s rather than studying elsewhere, it is worth asking whether that is an appropriate ‘nudge’. Nudging is about improving people’s ‘choice architecture’ so they make better decisions, whereas enrolling somewhere purely for financial reasons is questionable evidence of improved decision making.

If someone is persuaded by this new cash to take up a place rather than studying elsewhere, it is worth asking if that is an appropriate ‘nudge’.

No one running a major educational institution is going to turn down a generous donation, even when it comes with strings attached. (I once worked in a school that received a big sum that could only be spent on building a Rackets court.) But while more money is always welcome, perhaps we should respond to any surge in donations for initiatives with a thin evidence base by trying to spread the evidence about what works more widely. Too often, as many alumni in receipt of begging letters from their own institutions know, we are inclined to encourage donations for initiatives that bring less bang for the buck. Is this wise?


  1. Paul Woodgates says:

    The St John’s scheme, though no doubt well-intentioned, is seriously misguided. Given that the student loan scheme in England directly links the costs of going to university with the future ability to pay of the individual concerned, the only beneficiaries of this scheme will be those who one day earn a reasonable income. Indeed, the more they earn, the more they will benefit! Can that really be what the donor has in mind?

    But the bigger issue from my perspective is that the scheme will perpetuate the myth that higher education (and certainly higher education at somewhere as prestigious as St John’s, Cambridge) is only open to those with serious upfront funding available. That is both untrue and harmful to the goal of widening access. I wonder how many of the classmates of the lucky few who are the recipients of St John’s largesse, will reach the conclusion that as they are neither from rich families nor in receipt of a St John’s grant, higher education cannot be for them. That would be a sad outcome.

    There are so many worthwhile ways of improving access that could be funded from a big donation. But this is not the way.

  2. Tania says:

    Great article.

    Having been through the Cambridge application process, my view is that many non selective state school pupils are at a disadvantage because Oxbridge is looking for passion for your subject, and that is so much harder to develop in a comprehensive school.

    The culture between kids in a comprehensive school is often that it is bad to be a “try hard”, and kids are fighting that from Year 7. It would be fantastic if the elite universities could run summer schools from Y7 where bright kids could spend time together in a place where passion is appreciated.

    A friend who did not get a Physics offer from Cambridge this year was told that his interview was good, but entrance exam performance was weak. That was because he had no help at all from his school, unlike many kids from private and selective schools or the rare comprehensives which support Gifted and Talented students properly. I know many high attaining schools are already starting their Y12s on preparation for Oxbridge exams in 5 months.

    Summer schools for bright kids from non-selective state schools from Y7 at elite universities would be a great way of engaging with them at the right time. The courses should be free for people who could not afford it, but accessible for a charge to all kids from schools which do not have the resources to support their brightest students. One of my children was in the National Children’s Orchestra, one of their slogans was that places were allocated on ability to play, not ability to pay. It was fantastic for those kids to be in an environment where excellence was totally positive, would be fabulous to see national science camps, arts camps etc. The Cambridge HE+ was a very limp attempt at doing this, totally ineffective from my point of view.

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