Social mobility tsar demands university admissions reform

07 Sep 2011

 The former Labour Cabinet minister, Alan Milburn - who was appointed last year as social mobility tsar to the coalition government - has told universities they must do more to improve the fairness of student admissions. 

Addressing the Universities UK annual conference, he said access to university 'remains inequitable' with 'social class still determining who gets into universities generally and the top universities in particular'.

He urged university leaders to 'summon up the courage to get out and make a positive argument for change'. But, referring to the controversy surrounding so-called 'social engineering', he added this had to be done openly, not surreptitiously.

He said that, despite some progress in recent years,  young people from lower income groups were still under-represented, with those from a deprived background only half as likely to go on to university as their peers from professional backgrounds.

Criticises government policy

 Mr Milburn also criticised coalition government policies, in particular the abolition of the AimHigher agency, as 'a setback to the widening participation cause because it removes a national focus for activity'.

He also said there were 'risks' that the coalition government's decision to introduce 'a market in AAB students will switch the attention of universities away from attracting students with lower grades but equal potential'. The recent Higher Education White paper proposed that universities would not be restricted by the usual ceiling on admissions when recruiting applicants with grades A A B at A-level (or equivalent).

Oxbridge admissions changes needed

But the main focus of Mr Milburn's speech was on action that should be taken by universities themselves.

He picked out the different admissions timetable that currently exists for students wishing to apply to all courses at Oxford and Cambridge and to medicine and dentistry course at any university. He said the present situation - where students must apply for these courses earlier than for the great majority of courses - was 'a source of huge confusion for those who are not in the know'. He added that it 'inadvertently serves to exclude those without family history or good connections from applying'. 

He said he recognised that this would have to be done in a way that gave sufficient time for universities to conduct face-to-face interviews but argued that, with care and consultation, 'this anomaly could be ironed out'.

Recognisng pupils' backgorund

More generally, Mr Milburn set out four areas of action: 

  • universities should establish a clear evidence base for what forms of widening participation efforts produce the best outcomes. 
  • universities should do more to bring greater transparency and coherence to their application processes.  
  • more should done to 'sweep away the silos that divide vocational from academic education' and which are 'a very real practical impediment to social mobility'. Mr Milburn cited, as an example, the way some apprenticeships do not merit UCAS points for admission purposes.
  • the use of data that takes account of the educational and social context of pupils’ achievement should become 'the norm not the exception' across university admission processes.



User Comments

Rebecca Hanson - 07 Sep 2011

Advice for Mr Milburn

There were some very interesting themes which emerged from the WEF consultation on A-levels and university entrance last year.

It was a brilliantly facilitated consultation attended by the lead professionals from all the interested parties (top people from UCAS, OFQUAL, University entrance, Headteachers associations and so on plus a wide variety of interested parties) from which some profound insights and future possibilities emerged as we reflected on the implications of emerging technologies.

PQA, for example, was considered to be a realistic 10 year objective for the first time. It would, of course, address many of these issues.

Mr Milburn's comments are totally disconnected from the professional suggestions which were far better informed and targeted at effectively addressing key structural issues which generate the phenomena he observes.

He puts the onus on the universities but we need coherent central leadership and substantial coordination to make the necessary changes.

Perhaps in the future people in such positions might consider actually bothering to attend the consultations on issues they are issuing instructions on? But then I suppose he might actually end up having to do something helpful rather than just spout on about how it's the universities' job.

Anyway, in summary, it looks to me like he's managed to achieve only a superficial understanding of the most evident issues. He doesn't understand the generative structures behind them and so can't actually do anything constructive so he's shifting the responsibility. Lazy, arrogant, useless spring to mind. Oh well at least he's not coming up with horrific policies which will destroy education and inflicting them with great speed so I suppose we should count our blessings.

Rebecca Hanson - 08 Sep 2011

Polly Toynbee

This really is worth listening to.

Mr Milburn's point about Aim Higher is, of course, entirely valid but hardly rocket science.

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