Sir Martin Harris, head of the Office of Fair Access, said that it is state schools rather than universities that are responsible for the socioeconomic gap in the number of students enrolling in top degree programs in Britain. Harris, who is scheduled to relinquish his post later this year, believes that schools don’t do a good job of preparing students to tackle rigorous university-level work by denying them the opportunity to focus on core subjects like mathematics, science and foreign languages between the ages of 11 and 16.
Harris didn’t completely absolve the universities themselves, calling on them to do more to work with schools, and, if necessary, provide tutoring in subjects that will prove vital in the students’ academic future. By becoming more of a presence in state schools via academic counseling and university application assistance, top universities could make it easier for students from low-income backgrounds to consider them as an option.
Still, Harris admitted that such measures taken close to graduation — when students are nearing 18 years old — will not by themselves make enough of a difference in the admissions rates.
The comments appear at odds with those made by members of the Government, who have repeatedly criticised universities for failing to recruit enough students from poor backgrounds. Children from the richest 20 per cent of households are about six times more likely to go on to leading Russell Group universities than the poorest fifth.
Since the Government lifted the cap on tuition that may be charged by Britain’s universities, there has been an increased focus on the low rate of low-income admissions in the schools making up the Russel Group. This year, for the first time, Britain’s lawmakers have mandated that universities set concrete goals for increases in the number of students from poor backgrounds, those from ethnic and racial minorities and from the foster care system. There has also been pressure on schools to lower admissions requirements for students deemed to be high performers from under-performing state schools.
Sir Martin, who will leave his post next month, said that between 3,000 and 5,000 students with the potential to go on to top universities failed to get in.
“Schools are not always identifying the brightest young people to ensure that they have a curriculum that fully stretches them and equips them if they so wish to be a plausible candidate for a selective university,” he said.
“Can every school offer three sciences? Can every school offer modern foreign languages? If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’ then some bright kids will never get into the pool for selective universities.