Former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn is continuing to promote a social engineering program, saying that university applicants from poor backgrounds had to work harder than those with well-off parents and so should routinely be given lower offers.
He is due to publish a series of three reports for the coalition on child poverty and social mobility. The one due for publication in mid-June will focus on fairer access to higher education, amongst many claims lately that elite UK universities have unfairly abandoned poorer applicants. The Russell Group has insisted they would love to admit a more balanced demographic but are reluctant to compromise standards to do so, believing that University education should be about admitting the brightest and best; not meeting quotas.
Mr Milburn’s report is expected to urge Universities to take account of applicants’ backgrounds as part of selection procedures. His views have been finding an odd consensus amongst the coalition lately with Universities Minister David Willetts also urging institutions to look beyond grades and accept weaker students if they come from deprived backgrounds.
It follows controversy over the appointment of Prof Les Ebdon as the Government’s new director of fair access, after he attacked top universities that fail to take their share of disadvantaged students.
But speaking to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s quarterly journal, Mr Milburn said: “It is time, in my view, that the use of data that takes account of the educational and social context of pupils’ achievement becomes the norm, not the exception, across the country.
“This, I know, is controversial terrain. But without concerted action here, I simply do not believe we will make progress in ensuring access to university is genuinely open to the widest possible range of students.”
Regulations allow universities to use contextual data as part of the admissions process. This includes ethnicity, postcode and income. They can even take account of parental education to bring new families into university education and take account of average pupil performance at a school to make sure the brightest pupils aren’t being left out simply because they went to the wrong school where they were the biggest fish in a small pond.
While these goals are laudable, there is concern that compromising standards to admit weaker students will harm both the student who may not be able to cope with the level of academic rigor at higher education, and the institution itself because of international league table standings. Having their international reputation drop trying to meet some artificial quota will hurt all graduates of the institution.
Mr Milburn’s comments and those of his like-minded peers are generating controversy among conservatives and academics:
Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “Politicians should not be meddling with university admissions – they should be putting their energies into creating an excellent and equitable schools’ system for everyone.
“Universities, like Premier League football teams, should be allowed to select the best possible talent among those available to them.”