This post is a critical examination of policy and progress on improving progression for the highest attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds to selective universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge.
- Uncovers evidence of shaky statistical interpretation by these universities and their representative body;
- Identifies problems with the current light-touch regulatory and monitoring apparatus, including shortcomings in the publication of data and reporting of progress at national level;
- Endorses the criticisms and recommendations made by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) in its sector-specific report ‘Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge’ (June 2013) and
- Proposes a series of additional steps to address this long-standing shortcoming of our education system.
Regular readers may recall that I have completed two parts of a trilogy of posts carrying the optimistic strapline ‘A Summer of Love for Gifted Education’.
The idea was to structure these posts around three key government publications.
- Part One set up the conceit, introduced the three core documents and reviewed the only one then published, a DfE-commissioned ‘Investigation of Key Stage 2 Level 6 Tests’ (February 2013).
- Part Two took a scalpel to Ofsted’s survey report: ‘The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective schools?’ (June 2013).
- This final part was supposed to analyse another DfE-commissioned research report, an ‘Investigation of school- and college- level strategies to raise the Aspirations of High-Achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to pursue higher education’.
We know from the published contract (see attachment in ‘Documents’ section) that this latter study was undertaken by TNS/BMRB and the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (IPSE) based at London Metropolitan University. The final signed off report should have been produced by 28 June 2013 and published within 12 weeks of approval, so by the end of September. As I write, it has still to appear, which would suggest that there is a problem with the quality and/or size of the evidence base.
In the five months since the appearance of Part Two I have published a series of posts developing the themes explored in the first two-thirds of my incomplete trilogy.
- A two-part post examining the changes introduced into school inspection guidance following ‘The most able students’ and the prospects for the treatment of high attainers under future accountability arrangements (October 2013) consequent upon the consultations on primary, secondary and post-16 accountability respectively.
- A Brief Dux-inspired Interim Report (July 2013) that reported the Oxbridge admissions statistics hidden in the Destinations Data and information about the future of the DfE’s Dux Awards, including their rechristening as Future Scholar Awards.
But what to do about the missing final episode of ‘A Summer of Love’, which was going to develop this latter fair access theme in more detail?
My initial idea was to survey and synthesise the large number of other recently published studies on the topic. But, as I reviewed the content of these publications, it struck me that such a post would be stuffed full of descriptive detail but lack any real bite – by which I mean substantial and serious engagement with the central problem.
I decided to cut to the chase.
I also decided to foreground material about the highest reaches of A level attainment and progression to Oxbridge, not because I see the issue solely in these stratospheric terms, but because:
- The top end of fair access is important in its own right, especially for those with a gifted education perspective. Oxford and Cambridge consistently declare themselves a special case and I wanted to explore the substance of their position.
- There is compelling evidence that Oxford and Cambridge are amongst the weakest performers when it comes to fair access for the highest attaining disadvantaged learners. There are reasons why the task may be comparatively more difficult for them but, equally, as our most prestigious universities, they should be at the forefront when it comes to developing and implementing effective strategies to tackle the problem.
- The Government has itself made Oxbridge performance a litmus test of progress (or lack of progress) on fair access and on higher education’s wider contribution to social mobility.
The first part of the post briefly reviews the range of measures and regulatory apparatus devoted to improving fair access. This is to provide a frame from which to explore the available data and its shortcomings, rather than an in-depth analysis of relative strengths and weaknesses. Readers who are familiar with this background may prefer to skip it.
The mid-section concentrates on the limited data in the public domain and how it has been (mis)interpreted.
The final section reviews the criticisms made by the SMCPC and, while endorsing them thoroughly, offers a set of further proposals – many of them data-driven – for ratcheting up our collective national efforts to reverse the unsatisfactory progress made to date.
A Troubling Tale of Unnecessary Complexity and Weak Regulation
A Proliferation of Measures
There is little doubt that we have a problem in England when it comes to progression to selective, competitive higher education (however defined) by learners from disadvantaged backgrounds (however defined).
We may not be unique in that respect, but that does not alter the fact that the problem is longstanding and largely unresolved.
The recent ‘State of the Nation 2013’ Report from the SMPCPC says ‘there has been little change in the social profile of the most elite institutions for over a decade’, adding that ‘while some of the building blocks are in place to lift children off the bottom, opening up elites remains elusive.’
Part of the problem is that the debates about these respective definitions continue to receive disproportionate coverage. Such debates are sometimes deployed as a diversionary tactic, intentionally drawing us away from the unpalatable evidence that we are making decidedly poor headway in tackling the core issue.
The definitional complexities are such that they lend themselves to exploitation by those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo and defending themselves against what they regard as unwonted state intervention.
I shall resist the temptation to explore the comparative advantages and disadvantages of different measures, since that would risk falling into the trap I have just identified.
But I do need to introduce some of the more prominent – and pin down some subtle distinctions – if only for the benefit of readers in other countries.
One typically encounters four different categorisations of competitive, selective higher education here in the UK:
- Oxbridge – a convenient shorthand reference to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. These two institutions are commonly understood to be qualitatively superior to other UK universities and, although that advantage does not apply universally, to every undergraduate course and subject, there is some academic support for treating them as a category in their own right.
- Russell Group – The Russell Group was formed in 1994 and originally comprised 17 members. There are currently 24 members, 20 of them located in England, including Oxford and Cambridge. Four institutions – Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary’s and York – joined as recently as 2012 and membership is likely to increase as the parallel 1994 Group has just disbanded. DfE (as opposed to BIS) often uses Russell Group membership as its preferred proxy for selective, competitive higher education, although there are no objective criteria that apply exclusively to all members.
- Sutton Trust 30 – The Sutton Trust originally identified a list of 13 universities, derived from ‘average newspaper league table rankings’. This list – Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York – still appears occasionally in research commissioned by the Trust, although it was subsequently expanded to 30 institutions. In ‘Degrees of Success’, a July 2011 publication, they were described thus:
‘The Sutton Trust 30 grouping of highly selective universities comprises universities in Scotland, England and Wales with over 500 undergraduate entrants each year, where it was estimated that less than 10 per cent of places are attainable to pupils with 200 UCAS tariff points (equivalent to two D grades and a C grade at A-level) or less. These 30 universities also emerge as the 30 most selective according to the latest Times University Guide.’
The full list includes all but two of the Russell Group (Queen Mary’s and Queen’s Belfast) plus eight additional institutions.
- The most selective HEIs - The most selective universities, as defined by BIS, include the top third of HEIs ‘as ranked by mean UCAS tariff score from the top three A level grades of entrants’. This definition is used in the Government’s Social Mobility Indicators. The latest data release on widening participation comments:
‘The HEIs included in this group change every year; although 94% of HEIs remained in the top third for 5 consecutive years, from 2006/07 to 2010/11. The calculation is restricted to the top three A level attainment; pupils who study other qualifications at Key Stage 5 will be excluded. Institutions with a considerable proportion of entrants who studied a combination of A levels and other qualifications may appear to have low scores. As the analysis covers students from schools and colleges in England, some institutions in other UK countries have scores based on small numbers of students. As this measure uses matched data, all figures should be treated as estimates.’
This categorisation includes seven further mainstream universities (Aston, City, Dundee, East Anglia, Goldsmiths, Loughborough, Sussex) plus a range of specialist institutions.
Indicators of educational disadvantage are legion, but these are amongst the most frequently encountered:
- Eligibility for free school meals (FSM): DfE’s preferred measure. The term is misleading since the measure only includes learners who meet the FSM eligibility criteria and for whom a claim is made, so eligibility of itself is insufficient. Free school meals are available for learners in state-funded secondary schools, including those in sixth forms. From September 2014, eligibility will be extended to all in Years R, 1 and 2 and to disadvantaged learners in further education and sixth form colleges. The phased introduction of Universal Credit will also impact on the eligibility criteria (children of families receiving Universal Credit between April 2013 and March 2014 are eligible for FSM, but the cost of extending FSM to all Universal Credit recipients once fully rolled out is likely to be prohibitive). We do not yet know whether these reforms will cause DfE to select an alternative preferred measure and, if so, what that will be. Eligibility for the Pupil Premium is one option, more liberal than FSM, though this currently applies only to age 16.
- Residual Household Income below £16,000: This is broadly the income at which eligibility for free school meals becomes available. It is used by selective universities (Oxford included) because it can be applied universally, regardless of educational setting and whether or not free school meals have been claimed. Oxford explains that:
‘Residual income is based on gross household income (before tax and National Insurance) minus certain allowable deductions. These can include pension payments, which are eligible for certain specified tax relief, and allowances for other dependent children.’
The threshold is determined through the assessment conducted by Student Finance England, so is fully consistent with its guidance.
- Low participation schools: This measure focuses on participation by school attended rather than where students live. It may be generic – perhaps derived from the Government’s experimental destinations statistics – or based on admissions records for a particular institution. As far as I can establish, there is no standard or recommended methodology: institutions decide for themselves the criteria they wish to apply.
- POLAR (Participation Of Local Areas): HEFCE’s area-based classification of participation in higher education. Wards are categorised in five quintiles, with Quintile 1 denoting those with lowest participation. The current edition is POLAR 3.
- Other geodemographic classifications: these include commercially developed systems such as ACORN and MOSAIC based on postcodes and Output Area Classification (OAC) based on census data. One might also include under this heading the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and the associated sub-domain Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI).
- National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC): an occupationally-based definition of socio-economic status applied via individuals to their households. There are typically eight classes:
- Higher managerial, administrative and professional
- Lower managerial, administrative and professional
- Small employers and own account workers
- Lower supervisory and technical
- Semi routine
- Never worked and long term unemployed
Data is often reported for NS-SEC 4-7.
Sitting alongside these measures of disadvantage is a slightly different animal – recruitment from state-funded schools and colleges compared with recruitment from the independent sector.
While this may be a useful social mobility indicator, it is a poor proxy for fair access.
Many learners attending independent schools are from comparatively disadvantaged backgrounds, and of course substantively more learners at state-maintained schools are comparatively advantaged.
‘in most circumstances we would not approve an access agreement allowing an institution to measure the diversity of its student body solely on the basis of the numbers of state school pupils it recruits….it is conceivable that a university could improve its proportion of state school students without recruiting greater proportions of students from disadvantaged groups.’
Nevertheless, independent/state balance continues to features prominently in some access agreements drawn up by selective universities and approved by OFFA.
There is a risk that some institutions are permitted to give this indicator disproportionate attention, at the expense of their wider commitment to fair access.
Securing National Improvement
Given the embarrassment of riches set out above, comparing progress between institutions is well-nigh impossible, let alone assessing the cumulative impact on fair access at national level.
When it came to determining their current strategy, the government of the day must have faced a choice between:
- Imposing a standard set of measures on all institutions, ignoring complaints that those selected were inappropriate for some settings, particularly those that were somehow atypical;
- Allowing institutions to choose their own measures, even though that had a negative impact on the rate of improvement against the Government’s own preferred national indicators; and
- A half-way house which insisted on universal adoption of one or two key measures while permitting institutions to choose from a menu of additional measures, so creating a basket more or less appropriate to their circumstances.
For reasons that are not entirely clear – but presumably owe something to vigorous lobbying from higher education interests – the weaker middle option was preferred and remains in place to this day.
The standard-setting and monitoring process is currently driven by OFFA, though we expect imminently the final version of a National Strategy for Access and Student Success, developed jointly with HEFCE.
A new joint process for overseeing OFFA’s access agreements (from 2015/16) and HEFCE’s widening participation strategic statements (from 2014-2017) will be introduced in early 2014.
There were tantalising suggestions that the status quo might be adjusted through work on the wider issue of evaluation.
An early letter referred to plans to:
‘Commission feasibility study to establish if possible to develop common evaluation measures that all institutions could adopt to assess the targeting and impact of their access and student success work’.
The report would be completed by Spring 2013.
Then an Interim Report on the Strategy said the study would be commissioned in ‘early 2013 to report in May 2013’ (Annex B).
‘Informal discussions with a range of institutional representatives have indicated that many institutions would welcome a much clearer indication of the kind of evidence and indicators that we would wish to see. Therefore a key strand within the strategy development will be work undertaken with the sector to develop an evaluation framework to guide them in their efforts to evidence the impact of their activity. Within this, we intend to test the feasibility of developing some common measures for the gathering of high-level evidence that might be aggregated to provide a national picture. We will also investigate what more can be done by national bodies including ourselves to make better use of national data sets in supporting institutions as they track the impact of their interventions on individual students.’
However, HEFCE’s webpage setting out research and stakeholder engagement in support of the National Strategy still says the study is ‘to be commissioned’ and that the publication date is ‘to be confirmed’.
I can find no explanation of the reasons for this delay.
For the time being, OFFA is solely responsible for issuing guidance to institutions on the content of their access agreements, approving the Agreements and monitoring progress against them.
OFFA’s website says:
‘Universities and colleges set their own targets based on where they need to improve and what their particular institution is trying to achieve under its access agreement…These targets must be agreed by OFFA. We require universities and colleges to set themselves at least one target around broadening their entrant pool. We also encourage (but do not require) them to set themselves further targets, particularly around their work on outreach and, where appropriate, retention. Most choose to do so. We normally expect universities and colleges to have a range of targets in order to measure their progress effectively. When considering whether targets are sufficiently ambitious, we consider whether they represent a balanced view of the institution’s performance, and whether they address areas where indicators suggest that the institution has furthest to go to improve access.
From 2012-13, in line with Ministerial guidance, we are placing a greater emphasis on progress against targets. We would not, however, impose a sanction solely on the basis of a university or college not meeting its targets or milestones.’
The interim report on a National Strategy suggests that – informally at least – many universities recognise that this degree of flexibility is not helpful to their prospects of improving fair access, either individually or collectively.
But the fact that the promised work has not been undertaken might imply a counterforce pushing in precisely the opposite direction.
The expectations placed on universities are further complicated by the rather unclear status of the annual performance indicators for widening participation of under-represented groups supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).
HESA’s table for young full-time first degree entrants shows progress by each HEI against benchmarks for ‘from state schools or colleges’, ‘from NS-SEC classes 4, 5, 6 and 7’ and ‘from low participation neighbourhoods (based on POLAR3 methodology)’ respectively.
HESA describes its benchmarks thus:
‘Because there are such differences between institutions, the average values for the whole of the higher education sector are not necessarily helpful when comparing HEIs. A sector average has therefore been calculated which is then adjusted for each institution to take into account some of the factors which contribute to the differences between them. The factors allowed for are subject of study, qualifications on entry and age on entry (young or mature).’
HESA’s benchmarks are clearly influential in terms of the measures adopted in many access agreements (and much of the attention given to the state versus independent sector intake may be attributable to them).
On the other hand, the indicators receive rather cavalier treatment in the most recent access agreements from Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford applies the old POLAR2 methodology in place of the latest POLAR3, while Cambridge adjusts the POLAR3 benchmarks to reflect its own research.
The most recent 2011/12 HESA results for Oxford and Cambridge are as follows:
|Institution||State schools||NS-SEC 4-7||LPN (POLAR3)|
That probably explains why Oxbridge would prefer an alternative approach! But the reference to further work in the Interim Strategy perhaps also suggests that few see these benchmarks as the best way forward.
The Government also appears in something of a bind with its preferred measures for monitoring national progress.
When it comes to fair access (as opposed to widening participation) the Social Mobility Indicators rely exclusively on the gap between state and independent school participation at the most selective HEIs, as defined by BIS.
As noted above, this has major shortcomings as a measure of fair access, though more validity as a social mobility measure.
The relevant indicator shows that the gap held between 37% and 39% between 2006 and 2010, but this has just been updated to reflect an unfortunate increase to 40% in 2010/11.
BIS uses the same measure as a Departmental Performance Indicator for its work on higher education. The attachment on the relevant gov.uk page is currently the wrong one – which might indicate that BIS is less than comfortable with its lack of progress against the measure.
DfE takes a different approach declaring an ‘Outcome of Education’ indicator:
‘Outcome of education:
i) Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to Oxford or Cambridge*.
ii) Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to a Russell Group university*.
iii) Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to any university*.
iv) Participation in education and work based training at age 16 to 17
*Available June 2013’
Oxbridge Access Agreement Targets for 2014/15
Perhaps the best way to link this section with the next is by showing how Oxford and Cambridge have decided to frame the targets in their access agreements for 2014/15
Oxford has OFFA’s agreement to target:
- Schools and colleges that secure limited progression to Oxford. They use ‘historic UCAS data’ to estimate that ‘in any one year up to 1,680…will have no students who achieve AAA grades but, over a three-year period they may produce a maximum of two AAA candidates’. They also prioritise an estimated 1,175 institutions which have larger numbers achieving AAA grades ‘but where the success rate for an application to Oxford is below 10%’. In 2010, 19.4% of Oxford admissions were from these two groups and it plans to increase the proportion to 25% by 2016-17;
- UK undergraduates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, based on ‘ACORN postcodes 4 and 5’. Some 7.6% of admissions came from these postcodes in 2010/11 and Oxford proposes to reach 9.0% by 2016/17.
- UK undergraduates from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education, as revealed by POLAR2. It will focus on ‘students domiciled in POLAR quintiles 1 and 2’. In 2012, 10.6% are from this group and Oxford proposes to increase this to 13.0% by 2016-17.
In addition to a target for admitting disabled students, Oxford also says it will monitor and report on the state/independent school mix, despite evidence ‘that this measure is often misleading as an indicator of social diversity’. It notes that:
‘30% of 2012 entrants in receipt of the full Oxford Bursary (students with a household income of £16,000 or less) were educated in the independent sector…The University will continue to monitor the level of students from households with incomes of £16,000 or less. It is considered that these are the most financially disadvantaged in society, and it is below this threshold that some qualify for receipt of free schools meals, and the pupil premium. The University does not consider that identifying simply those students who have been in receipt of free school meals provides a suitably robust indicator of disadvantage as they are not available in every school or college with post-16 provision, nor does every eligible student choose to receive them.
There are no national statistics currently available on the number of students whose household income is £16,000 or less and who attain the required academic threshold to make a competitive application to Oxford. In 2011-12, around one in ten of the University’s UK undergraduate intake was admitted from a household with this level of declared income.’
Meanwhile, Cambridge proposes only two relevant targets, one of them focused on the independent/state divide:
- Increase the proportion of UK resident students admitted from UK state sector schools and colleges to between 61% and 63%. This is underpinned by the University’s research finding that ‘the proportion of students nationally educated at state schools securing examination grades in subject combinations that reflect our entrance requirements and the achievement level of students admitted to Cambridge stands at around 62%’.
- Increase the proportion of UK resident students from low participation neighbourhoods to approximately 4% by 2016. It argues:
‘Currently HESA performance indicators and other national datasets relating to socio-economic background do not take adequate account of the entry requirements of individual institutions. Whilst they take some account of attainment, they do not do so in sufficient detail for highly selective institutions such as Cambridge where the average candidate admitted has 2.5 A* grades with specific subject entry requirements. For the present we have adjusted our HESA low participation neighbourhood benchmark in line with the results of our research in relation to state school entry and will use this as our target.’
Each of these approaches has good and bad points. Cambridge’s is more susceptible to the criticism that it is overly narrow. There is no real basis to compare the relative performance of the two institutions since there is negligible overlap between their preferred indicators. That may be more comfortable for them, but it is not in the best interests of their customers, or of those seeking to improve their performance.
Investigating the Data on High Attainment and Fair Access to Oxbridge
Those seeking statistics about high attainment amongst disadvantaged young people and their subsequent progression to Oxbridge are bound to be disappointed.
There is no real appreciation of the excellence gap in this country and this looks set to continue. The fact that gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners are typically wider at the top end of the attainment distribution seems to have acted as a brake on the publication of data that proves the point.
It is possible that the current round of accountability reforms will alter this state of affairs, but this has not yet been confirmed.
For the time being at least, almost all published statistics about high A level attainment amongst disadvantaged learners have come via answers to Parliamentary Questions. This material invariably measures disadvantage in terms of FSM eligibility.
Information about the admission of disadvantaged learners to Oxbridge is equally scant, but a picture of sorts can be built up from a mixture of PQ replies, university admission statistics and the DfE’s destination measures. The material supplied by the universities draws on measures other than FSM.
The following two sections set out what little we know, including the ever important statistical caveats.
High Attainment Data
- In 2003, 94 students (1.9%) eligible for FSM achieved three or more A grades at A level. The figures relate to 16-18 year-olds in maintained schools only who were eligible for FSM at age 16. They do not include students in FE sector colleges (including sixth from colleges) who were previously eligible for FSM. Only students who entered at least one A level, applied A level or double award qualification are included. (Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1346W))
- In 2007, 189 FSM-eligible students (3.7%) in maintained mainstream schools (so again excluding sixth form colleges and FE colleges) achieved 3 A grades at A level. (Source: Parliamentary Question, 26 November 2008, Hansard (Col 1859W)
- In 2008, 160 students (3.5%) eligible for FSM achieved that outcome. The figures relate to 16-18 year-olds, in maintained schools only, who were eligible for FSM at age 16. They do not include students in FE sector colleges (including sixth from colleges) who were previously eligible for FSM. Only students who entered at least one A level, applied A level or double award qualification are included. (Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1346W))
- In 2008/09, 232 pupils at maintained mainstream schools eligible for FSM achieved three or more A grades at A level (including applied A level and double award), 179 of them attending comprehensive schools. The figures exclude students in FE and sixth form colleges previously eligible for FSM. (Parliamentary Question, 7 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1451W))
- The number of Year 13 A level candidates eligible for FSM in Year 11 achieving 3 or more A grade levels (including applied A levels and double award) were: 2006 – 377; 2007 – 433; 2008 – 432; 2009 – 509. These figures include students in both the schools and FE sectors.(Parliamentary Question, 27 July 2010, Hansard (Col 1223W))
- Of pupils entering at least one A level in 2010/11 and eligible for FSM at the end of Year 11, 546 achieved 3 or more GCE A levels at A*-A. These figures include students in both the schools and FE sectors. (Parliamentary Question, 9 July 2012, Hansard (Col 35W))
To summarise, the total number of students who were FSM-eligible at age 16 and went on to achieve three or more GCE A levels at Grade A*/A – including those in maintained schools, sixth form and FE colleges – has been increasing significantly since 2006.
The overall increase between 2006 and 2011 is about 45%.
Oxbridge Admission/Acceptance Data
- The number of learners eligible for and claiming FSM at age 15 who progressed to Oxford or Cambridge by age 19 between 2005 and 2008 (rounded to the nearest five) were:
- DfE’s Destination Statistics for 2010/11 (June/July 2013) give the following results
|Number||%age FSM||Number FSM|
|Top third of HEIs||49,030||4%||2,000|
These are experimental statistics and all figures – including the 30 at Oxbridge – are rounded to the nearest 10. The introductory commentary explains that:
‘This statistical first release (experimental statistics) on destination measures shows the percentage of students progressing to further learning in a school, further education or sixth-form college, apprenticeship, higher education institution or moving into employment or training.’
It adds that:
‘To be included in the measure, young people have to show sustained participation in an education or employment destination in all of the first 2 terms of the year after they completed KS4 or took A level or other level 3 qualifications. The first 2 terms are defined as October to March.’
The Technical Notes published alongside the data also reveal that: It includes only learners aged 16-18 and those who have entered at least one A level or an equivalent L3 qualification; the data collection process incorporates ‘an estimate of young people who have been accepted through the UCAS system for entry into the following academic year’ but ‘deferred acceptances are not reported as a distinct destination’; and FSM data for KS5 learners relates to those eligible for and claiming FSM in Year 11.
- Cambridge’s 2012 intake ‘included 50+ students who had previously been in receipt of FSM’ (It is not stated whether all were eligible in Year 11, so it is most likely that this is the number of students who had received FSM at one time or another in their school careers.) This shows that Cambridge at least is collecting FSM data that it does not publish amongst its own admission statistics or use in its access agreement. (Cambridge University Statement, 26 September 2013)
- In 2012, Cambridge had 418 applications from the most disadvantaged POLAR2 quintile (4.6% of all applicants) and, of those, 93 were accepted (3.6% of all acceptances) giving a 22.2% success rate.(Cambridge University Admission Statistics 2012 (page 23))
- In 2012, Oxford accepted 179 students from Acorn postcodes 4 and 5, meaning an estimated 6.7% of acceptances came from this background, (against a target of 9% by 2016/17). (Undergraduate Admissions Statistics: Access Agreement target categories)
- In 2012, Oxford accepted 283 students from POLAR2 quintiles 1 and 2, meaning an estimated 10.6% of acceptances came from this background (against a target of 13% by 2016/17). (Undergraduate Admissions Statistics: Access Agreement target categories )
To summarise, the numbers of disadvantaged learners progressing to Oxbridge are very small; exceedingly so as far as those formerly receiving FSM are concerned.
Even allowing for methodological variations, the balance of evidence suggests that, at best, the numbers of FSM learners progressing to Oxbridge have remained broadly the same since 2005.
During that period, the concerted efforts of the system described above have had zero impact. The large sums invested in outreach and bursaries have made not one iota of difference.
This is true even though the proportion achieving the AAA A level benchmark has increased by about 45%. If Oxbridge admission was solely dependent on attainment, one would have expected a commensurate increase, to around 65 FSM entrants per year.
On the basis of the 2010/11 Destination Indicators, we can estimate that, whereas Oxbridge admits approximately 8% of all Russell Group students, it only admits slightly over 3% of Russell Group FSM students. If Oxbridge achieved the performance of its Russell Group peers, the numbers of formerly FSM admissions would be over 100 per year.
Misleading Use of This Data
To add insult to injury, this data is frequently misinterpreted and misused. Here are some examples, all of which draw selectively on the data set out above.
- Of the 80,000 FSM-eligible students in the UK only 176 received three As at A level…more than one quarter of those students….ended up at either Oxford or Cambridge – Nicholson (Oxford Undergraduate Admissions Director, Letter to Guardian, 7 March 2011)
- ‘Of the 80,000 children eligible for free school meals in the UK in 2007, only 176 received 3 As at A level. Of those 45 (more than a quarter) got places at Oxford or Cambridge’ (Undated Parliamentary Briefing ‘Access and admissions to Oxford University’ )
- ‘The root causes of underrepresentation of students from poorer backgrounds at leading universities include underachievement in schools and a lack of good advice on subject choices. For example, in 2009 only 232 students who had been on free school meals (FSM) achieved 3As at A-level or the equivalent. This was 4.1% of the total number of FSM students taking A-levels, and less than an estimated 0.3% of all those who had received free school meals when aged 15.’ (Russell Group Press release, 23 July 2013).
- ‘Such data as is available suggests that less than 200 students per year who are recorded as being eligible for FSM secure grades of AAA or better at A level. The typical entrance requirement for Cambridge is A*AA, and so on that basis the University admits in excess of one quarter of all FSM students who attain the grades that would make them eligible for entry.’ (Cambridge University Statement, 26 September 2013)
- ‘According to data produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, of the 4,516 FSM students who secured a pass grade at A Level in 2008 only 160 secured the grades then required for entry to the University of Cambridge (ie AAA). Students who were eligible for FSM therefore make up less than 1% of the highest achieving students nationally each year.
Assuming that all 160 of these students applied to Oxford or Cambridge in equal numbers (ie 80 students per institution) and 22 were successful in securing places at Cambridge (in line with the 2006-08 average) then this would represent a success rate of 27.5% – higher than the average success rate for all students applying to the University (25.6% over the last three years). In reality of course not every AAA student chooses to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, for instance because neither university offers the course they want to study, e.g. Dentistry.’ (Cambridge Briefing, January 2011 repeated in Cambridge University Statement, 26 September 2013)
To summarise, Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group are all guilty of implying that FSM-eligible learners in the schools sector are the only FSM-eligible learners progressing to selective universities.
They persist in using the school sector figures even though combined figures for the school and FE sectors have been available since 2010.
Oxbridge’s own admission statistics show that, in 2012:
- 9.6% of acceptances at Cambridge (332 students) were extended to students attending sixth form, FE and tertiary colleges (UK figures)
- 10.5% of UK domiciled acceptances at Oxford (283 students) were extended to students attending sixth form colleges and FE institutions of all types
We can rework Cambridge’s calculation using the figure of 546 students with three or more A*/A grades in 2011:
- assuming that all applied to Oxford and Cambridge in equal numbers gives a figure of 273 per institution
- assuming a success rate of 25.6% – the average over the last three years
- the number of FSM students that would have been admitted to Cambridge is roughly 70.
Part of the reason high-attaining disadvantaged students do not apply to Oxbridge may be because they want to study the relatively few mainstream subjects, such as dentistry, which are not available.
But it is highly likely that other factors are at play, including the perception that Oxbridge is not doing all that it might to increase numbers of disadvantaged students from the state sector.
If this favourable trend in A level performance stalls, as a consequence of recent A level reforms, it will not be reasonable – in the light of the evidence presented above – for Oxbridge to argue that this is impacting negatively on the admission of FSM-eligible learners.
Building on the work of the SMCPC
‘Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge’
There is no shortage of publications on fair access and related issues. In the last year alone, these have included:
- OFFA’s ‘Access agreement and widening participation strategic assessment 2011-12 and National Scholarship Programme 2012-13 (in year) monitoring outcomes’ (June 2013)
- OFFA’s analysis of ‘2014-15 access agreements: institutional expenditure and fee levels’ (July 2013)
- HEFCE’s ‘Literature Review of research into widening participation to higher education’ (August 2013)
- A Report by the Independent Commission on Fees ‘Analysis of university applications for 2013/14 admissions’ (September 2013)
- The Pearson Think Tank report ‘(Un)informed Choices? University admissions practices and social mobility’ (September 2013).
- International research on the effectiveness of widening participation (October 2013) commissioned by HEFCE
- SPA’s ‘Contexualised admissions: examining the evidence’ (October 2013)
- The Sutton Trust’s ‘Family background and access to ‘high status’ universities’ (November 2013)
Easily the most impressive has been the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s ‘Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge’ (June 2013), though it does tend to rely a little too heavily on evidence of the imbalance between state and independent-educated students.
It examines the response of universities to recommendations first advanced in an earlier publication ‘University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility’ (2012) published by Alan Milburn, now Chair of the Commission, in his former role as Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility.
The analysis sets out key points from the earlier work:
- Participation levels at the most selective universities by the least advantaged are unchanged since the mid-90s.
- The most advantaged young people are seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the most disadvantaged.
- The probability of a state secondary pupil eligible for FSM in Year 11 entering Oxbridge by 19 is almost 2000 to 1; for a privately educated pupil the probability is 20 to 1.
New research is presented to show that the intake of Russell Group universities has become less socially representative in the last few years:
- The number of state school pupils entering Russell Group Universities has increased by an estimated 2.6% from 2002/03 to 2011/12, but the commensurate increase in privately educated entrants is 7.9%. The proportion of young full-time state-educated entrants has consequently fallen from 75.6% to 74.6% over this period. The worst performers on this measure are: Durham (-9.2%), Newcastle (-4.6%), Warwick (-4.5%) and Bristol (-3.9%). The best are: Edinburgh (+4.6%), UCL (+3.3%), LSE (+3.0%) and Southampton (2.9%). The Oxbridge figures are: Cambridge (+0.3%) and Oxford (+2.3%).
- Similarly, the proportion of young full-time entrants from NS-SEC classes 4-7 has fallen from 19.9% in 2002/03 to 19.0% in 2011/12. A table (reproduced below) shows that the worst offenders on this measure are Queen’s Belfast (-4.6%), Liverpool (-3.2%), Cardiff (-2.9%) and Queen Mary’s (-2.7%). Conversely, the best performers are Nottingham (+2.2%), York (+0.9%), Warwick and LSE (+0.8%). The figures for Oxbridge are: Cambridge (-1.0%) and Oxford (0.0%).
- An estimated 3,700 state-educated learners have the necessary grades for admission to Russell Group universities but do not take up places. This calculation is based on the fact that, if all of the 20 Russell Group universities in England achieved their HESA widening participation benchmarks, they would have recruited an extra 3,662 students from state schools. (The benchmarks show how socially representative each intake would be if it were representative of all entrants with the grades required for entry – though see Cambridge’s reservations on this point, above.) Some universities would need to increase significantly the percentage of state students recruited – for example, Bristol and Durham (26.9%), Oxford (23.4%) and Cambridge (23.3%).
- Using the same methodology to calculate the shortfall per university in NS-SEC 4-7 students results in the table below, showing the worst offenders to require percentage increases of 54.4% (Cambridge), 48.5% (Bristol), 45.5% (Oxford) and 42,2% (Durham). Conversely, Queen Mary’s, Queen’s Belfast, LSE and Kings College are over-recruiting from this population on this measure.
- Even if every Russell Group university met the self-imposed targets in its access agreement, the number of ‘missing’ state educated students would drop by only 25% by 2016/17, because the targets are insufficiently ambitious. (This is largely because only seven have provided such targets in their 2013/14 access agreements and there are, of course, no collective targets.)
- Boliver’s research is cited to show that there is a gap in applications from state school pupils compared with those educated in the independent sector. But there is also evidence that a state school applicant needs, on average, one grade higher in their A levels (eg AAA rather than AAB) to be as likely to be admitted as an otherwise identical student from the independent sector.
- A Financial Times analysis of 2011 applications to Oxford from those with very good GCSEs found that those from independent schools were 74% more likely to apply than those from the most disadvantaged state secondary schools. Amongst applicants, independently educated students were more than three times as likely to be admitted as their peers in disadvantaged state schools. They were also 20% more likely to be admitted than those at the 10% most advantaged state secondary schools. As shown by the table below, the probabilities involved varied considerably. The bottom line is that the total probability of a place at Oxford for an independent school student is 2.93%, whereas the comparable figure for a student at one of the 10% most disadvantaged state secondary schools is just 0.07%.
When it comes to the causes of the fair access gap, subject to controls for prior attainment, the report itemises several contributory factors, noting the limited evidence available to establish their relative importance and interaction:
- low aspirations among students, parents and teachers
- less knowledge of the applications process, problems in demonstrating potential through the admissions process and a tendency to apply to the most over-subscribed courses
- not choosing the right A-level subjects and teachers’ under-prediction of expected A level grades
- a sense that selective universities ‘are socially exclusive and “not for the likes of them”’
The Report states unequivocally that:
‘The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is deeply concerned about the lack of progress on fair access. The most selective universities need to be doing far more to ensure that they are recruiting from the widest possible pool of talent. The Commission will be looking for evidence of a step change in both intention and action in the years to come.’
It identifies several areas for further action, summarising universities’ responses to ‘University Challenge’:
- Building links between universities and schools: The earlier report offered several recommendations, including that universities should have explicit objectives to help schools close attainment gaps. No evidence is given to suggest that such action is widespread, though many universities are strengthening their outreach activities and building stronger relationships with the schools sector. Several universities highlighted the difficulties inherent in co-ordinating their outreach activity given the demise of Aimhigher, but several retain involvement in a regional partnership.
- Setting targets for fair access: The earlier report recommended that HE representative bodies should set statistical targets for progress on fair access over the next five years. This was not met positively:
‘Representative bodies in the Higher Education Sector did not feel this would be a useful step for them to take, saying that it was difficult to aggregate the different targets that individual institutions set themselves. There was also a feeling among some highly selective institutions that the report overestimated the number of students who have the potential to succeed at the most selective universities.’
Nevertheless, the Commission is insistent:
‘The Commission believes it is essential that the Russell Group signals its determination to make a real difference to outcomes by setting a clear collective statistical target for how much progress its members are aiming to make in closing the ‘fair access gap’. Not doing so risks a lack of sustained focus among the most selective universities’.
- Using contextual admissions data: The report argues that ‘there is now a clear evidence base that supports the use of contextual data’. Recommendations from the earlier report were intended to universalise the use of contextual data, including commitment from the various representative bodies through a common statement of support and a collaborative guide to best practice. There is no sign of the former, although the Commission reports ‘widespread agreement that the use of contextual data during the admissions process should be mainstreamed’. However it notes that there is much more still to do. (The subsequent SPA publication should have helped to push forward this agenda.)
- Reforming the National Scholarship Programme: The earlier report called on the Government to undertake a ‘strategic review of government funding for access’ to include the national Scholarship Programme (NSP). The suggestion that the imminent HEFCE/OFFA National Strategy should tackle the issue has been superseded by a Government decision to refocus the NSP on postgraduate education.
- Postgraduate funding reform: The earlier report recommended work on a postgraduate loan scheme and further data collection to inform future decisions. The current report says that:
‘…the Government appears to have decided against commissioning an independent report looking at the issue of postgraduate access. This is very disappointing.’
and calls on it ‘to take heed’. However, this has again been superseded by the NSP announcement.
The SMCPC’s ‘State of the Nation 2013’ report reinforces its earlier publication, arguing that:
‘…despite progress, too much outreach work that aims to make access to university fairer and participation wider continues to rely on unproven methods or on work that is ad hoc, uncoordinated and duplicative… These are all issues that the higher education sector needs to address with greater intentionality if progress is to be made on breaking the link between social origin and university education.
The UK Government also needs to raise its game… much more needs to be done… to address the loss of coordination capacity in outreach work following the abolition of Aimhigher.’
It recommends that:
‘All Russell Group universities should agree five-year aims to close the fair access gap, all universities should adopt contextual admissions processes and evidence-based outreach programmes, and the Government should focus attention on increasing university applications from mature and part-time students.’
What Else Might Be Done?
I set myself the challenge of drawing up a reform programme that would build on the SMCPC’s recommendations but would also foreground the key issues I have highlighted above, namely:
- A significant improvement in the rate of progression for disadvantaged high-attaining learners to Oxbridge;
- A more rigorous approach to defining, applying and monitoring improvement measures; and
- The publication of more substantive and recent data
A determined administration that is prepared to take on the vested interests could do worse than pursue the following 10-point plan
- 1. Develop a new approach to specifying universities’ fair access targets for young full-time undergraduate students. This would require all institutions meeting the BIS ‘most selective HEI’ criteria to pursue two universal measures and no more than two measures of their own devising, so creating a basket of no more than four measures. Independent versus state representation could be addressed as one of the two additional measures.
- 2. The universal measures should relate explicitly to students achieving a specified A level threshold that has currency at these most selective HEIs. It could be pitched at the equivalent of ABB at A level, for example. The measures should comprise:
- A progression measure for all learners eligible for the Pupil Premium in Year 11 of their secondary education (so a broader measure than FSM eligibility); and
- A progression measure for all learners – whether or not formerly eligible for the Pupil Premium – attending a state-funded sixth form or college with a relatively poor historical record of securing places for their learners at such HEIs. This measure would be nationally defined and standardised across all institutions other than Oxbridge.
- 3. In the case of Oxford and Cambridge the relevant A level tariff would be set higher, say at the equivalent of AAA grades at A level, and the nationally defined ‘relatively poor historical record’ would reflect only Oxbridge admission.
- 4. These two universal measures would be imposed on institutions through the new National Strategy for Access and Student Success. All institutions would be required to set challenging but realistic annual targets. There would be substantial financial incentives for institutions achieving their targets and significant financial penalties for institutions that fail to achieve them.
- 5. The two universal measures would be embedded in the national Social Mobility Indicators and the KPIs of BIS and DfE respectively.
- 6. Central Government would publish annually data setting out:
- The number and percentage of formerly Pupil Premium-eligible learners achieving the specified A level thresholds for selective universities and Oxbridge respectively.
- A ‘league table’ of the schools and colleges with relatively poor progression to selective universities and Oxbridge respectively.
- A ‘league table’ of the universities with relatively poor records of recruitment from these schools and colleges.
- A time series showing the numbers of students and percentage of their intake drawn from these two populations by selective universities and Oxbridge respectively each year. This should cover both applications and admissions.
- 7. All parties would agree new protocols for data sharing and transparency, including tracking learners through unique identifiers across the boundaries between school and post-16 and school/college and higher education, so ensuring that the timelag in the publication of this data is minimal.
- 8. Universities defend fiercely their right to determine their own undergraduate admissions without interference from the centre, meaning that the business of driving national improvement is much more difficult than it should be. But, given the signal lack of progress at the top end of the attainment distribution, there are strong grounds for common agreement to override this autonomy in the special case of high-achieving disadvantaged students. A new National Scholarship Scheme should be introduced to support learners formerly in receipt of the Pupil Premium who go on to achieve the Oxbridge A Level tariff:
- Oxford and Cambridge should set aside 5% additional places per year (ie on top of their existing complement) reserved exclusively for such students. On the basis of 2012 admissions figures, this would amount to almost exactly 250 places for England divided approximately equally between the two institutions (the scheme could be for England only or UK-wide). This would provide sufficient places for approximately 45% of those FSM learners currently achieving 3+ A*/A grades.
- All eligible students with predicted grades at or above the tariff would be eligible to apply for one of these scholarship places. Admission decisions would be for the relevant university except that – should the full allocation not be taken up by those deemed suitable for admission who go on to achieve the requisite grades – the balance would be made available to the next best applicants until the quota of places at each university is filled.
- The Government would pay a premium fee set 50% above the going rate (so £4,500 per student per annum currently) for each National Scholarship student admitted to Oxbridge. However, the relevant University would be penalised the full fee plus the premium (so £13,500 per student per year) should the student fail to complete their undergraduate degree with a 2.2 or better. Penalties would be offset against the costs of running the scheme. Assuming fees remain unchanged and 100% of students graduate with a 2.2 or better, this would cost the Government £1.125m pa.
- 9. In addition, the Government would support the establishment of a National Framework Programme covering Years 9-13, along the lines set out in my November 2010 post on this topic with the explicit aim of increasing the number of Pupil Premium-eligible learners who achieve these tariffs. The budget could be drawn in broadly equal proportions from Pupil Premium/16-19 bursary, a matched topslice from universities’ outreach expenditure and a matched sum from the Government. If the programme supported 2,500 learners a year to the tune of £2,500 per year, the total steady state cost would be slightly over £30m, approximately £10m of which would be new money (though even this could be topsliced from the overall Pupil Premium budget).
- 10. The impact of this plan would be carefully monitored and evaluated, and adjusted as appropriate to maximise the likelihood of success. It would be a condition of funding that all selective universities would continue to comply with the plan.
Do I honestly believe anything of this kind will ever happen?