Education & Family

Social mobility: Universities need to do more says Alan Milburn

Image caption Only 10% of first year degree students are from low-income areas

Alan Milburn is putting universities at the heart of his blueprint to increase social mobility and break down barriers to success.

Universities find that position uncomfortable, even though they support the aim.

Figures suggest just 10% of first year undergraduates in the UK are from poor areas and at top universities, the proportion will be lower.

The latest report from the former Labour minister says teenagers from the richest 20% of households are seven times more likely to go to a top university than those in the poorest 40%.

Alan Milburn was asked by the government to look at the issue of social mobility and make recommendations.

His latest report focuses on universities in England. The most controversial suggestions are about lower grade offers to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and a call for universities to fund teenagers to stay in school or college.

'Blame game'

But Mr Milburn's report makes clear that it is not just universities which should do more to boost achievement among the poorest in society and says it is time for the "blame game" to stop.

"The blame game - where universities blame schools, schools blame parents and everyone blames the government - has to end," he told reporters.

It is clear, and recognised by Mr Milburn, that many young people have little chance of going to university because they have not even got basic qualifications.

Four out of ten 16-year-olds in England do not get five good GCSEs (A* to C) including maths and English - the basic measure on which school league tables are based.

Many universities are doing what is called outreach work with secondary schools - holding open days or summer schools for students or going in to talk to pupils so that they consider working towards a university place.

But some experts argue that catching youngsters at 15 or 16 might be too late and that the answer is to raise aspirations early, so pupils see university as an option, make the right choices in terms of subjects and put in the effort needed to get there.

Some universities, such as Liverpool, target primary schools with this in mind.

Through its Professor Fluffy programme, which involves a "cuddly toy professor", it works with primary schools to introduce youngsters to the idea of higher education.

And Nottingham Trent University holds "Family Fun Evenings" for 10 and 11-year-olds from poorer areas and their parents to introduce them to higher education.

University College London has sponsored an academy in Camden (called the UCL Academy), offering master classes, summer schools and mentors as well as giving pupils an idea of "life at university from a young age", it says.

And the University of East Anglia is involved with the City Academy, Norwich.

Mr Milburn says all top universities should follow suit and sponsor academy schools in disadvantaged areas.

Oxford calling

Mirella, from north London, has just started a history degree at Oxford University and says good teachers - and visits to Oxford and Cambridge - helped her to raise her sights.

"University was certainly something I always wanted to do, but Oxford was not something I had ever dreamed of," she said.

The 18-year-old says she widened her ambitions after being taught by two Oxford graduates at her school in Hornsey. The teachers were placed there under the Teach First scheme which aims to put high-flying graduates in to state schools in poor areas.

Image caption Access to top universities is under the microscope

"It was the atmosphere some Teach First teachers created in my school," she said.

"We had a "Gifted and Talented" club organised by one of our Teach First Teachers. One took us on trips to Oxford and Cambridge.

She made it clear to us how much work we needed to do and how important our GCSEs are.

"That's where a lot of state school pupils are let down. If you have good grades you can apply anywhere."

Mirella says her teachers encouraged her to read widely and increased her "political awareness", which she believes helped her succeed in her Oxford interview. She was the first pupil from her school to get an Oxbridge place.

While a push from the school end can clearly make a difference, a "pull" from the universities themselves is also thought useful.

To this end, universities in England already have individual targets on admitting more students from poorer homes and under tighter controls brought in with higher fees in England, have to show they are spending money "widening participation" - whether through grants, money off tuition fees or helping raise awareness about universities.


While universities want to to increase the number of pupils from poorer homes coming through their doors, they baulk at anything which could be seen as taking away their independence - their freedom over whom they admit and how they spend their money.

The suggestion that they fund a replacement for the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a grant for teenagers scrapped by the government in England, has gone down badly.

As for universities varying the grades students need to get on courses depending on their background - and the use of what is called "contextual data" - some already do that, but the sector will resist any attempt to bring in an across-the-board rule on it.

Mr Milburn said research suggested that around 40% of institutions used this data, and more than 60% planned to in the future.

That is an area which sparks intense political debate and prompts accusations that universities are involved in "social engineering", denying places to other better-qualified students.

Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group of Universities says universities already look at individual circumstances.

"Grades at GCSE, A-Level or their equivalent are always hugely important, but they're never the sole criterion," she said.

At Oxford University, pupils who appear to be succeeding in challenging circumstances are "flagged up" and are more likely to be called for interview.

Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group of universities said the report was an "important contribution" and that higher education did have an important role to play in aiding social mobility, but some of the recommendations gave "real cause for concern".

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