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Panorama Archives: 2000
Elite British Universities Considering More Open Admissions Policy
By Ruth Bryan
A special initiative has been launched in a bid to ensure that
Britain's elite universities become more socially inclusive by
encouraging students from less well off social backgrounds to apply
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the central
organisation for processing all applications for entry to full-time
undergraduate courses in the United Kingdom, has introduced the
Forecasting and Planning Service (FPS) that provides new guidelines
designed to encourage applications from students who would otherwise
not bother to apply for admission to the top universities.
The FPS, launched in October 1999, has the support of the Minister
for Higher Education Baroness Blackstone, vice chancellors and the
education unions. The service will enable admissions officers to
target areas of the country that have in the past produced few
students by using the postcodes of students' addresses and then
inviting pupils to apply to these institutions in an attempt to
create a better social mix.
Data for the FPS is based on statistics provided by MOSAIC, a
sophisticated profiling system that uses a combination of census,
electoral roll, housing and financial data to classify groups into 12
lifestyle categories. It is widely used in the private sector but
this is the first time it has been used to analyse higher education
Figures show that while only just over 10 per cent of British
households are described as ``high income families'', over 20 per cent of
UCAS applicants fall into this category. This is shown by an index
figure of 190, which means that for every 100 applicants one would
expect from that group in proportion to the total population, there
are actually 190. For ``low rise council'' the index is 51 - only half the
number of applicants one would expect if the distribution was random.
Many students from state schools don't even consider applying to
Oxbridge and other elite universities because they are dissuaded from
doing so by the myths and prejudices that exist regarding these
institutions. Many perceive that the typical Oxbridge student is very
rich, a genius and from a public school. However, the truth is there
is no such thing as a typical Oxbridge student.
At Cambridge, for example, half of all new entrants in 1997 were from
the state sector. However, there is still much progress to be made.
In 1997, 65 per cent of students achieving top grades at A-level were
from state schools yet just over 50 per cent of successful Cambridge
applicants were from state schools.
The new FPS selection technique does however have its detractors who
claim it is merely an attempt at social engineering. Alan Smithers,
the professor of education at Liverpool University thinks there is a
real danger that bright students with affluent parents will be
discriminated against unfairly. Dick Davison of the Independent
Schools' Information Service also expressed some doubt over the
fairness of selection by postcode if it meant that decisions about
marginal candidates were influenced by where the students' homes are
Tony Higgins, the chief executive of UCAS denies that there would be
discrimination. Instead he claims that the system will help
universities to satisfy government targets for widening participation
in higher education and redressing the balance because people from
the lower socio-economic groups are severely under represented.
The Forecasting and Planning Service is not the only scheme in
operation that is trying to attract more students of high potential,
irrespective of their social background, gender, race or financial
resources, into centres of excellence.
Since 1998 Oxford and Cambridge have introduced campaigns to attract
more applications for places from state-maintained schools in
Britain. The Target Schools Scheme aims to increase the proportion of
undergraduates coming from state schools by encouraging more
applications to Cambridge University. The scheme mails every state
sector sixth form in the country informing and giving them the
opportunity to receive a talk from a Cambridge undergraduate about
life at the university. At Easter, the volunteers go out to schools
to give their talks.
Another part of this drive towards social inclusivity includes the
Oxford ``battle bus'' scheme where undergraduates and staff tour the
country and try to present a more accurate picture of life at Oxford.
By sharing their stories and experiences undergraduates can help to
convince the students that Oxford is both a great place to study and
a fun place to live. The Oxford Access Scheme which has industry
support, targets inner city areas and ethnic minorities by
encouraging attendance at summer schools At Cambridge, a similar
initiative is underway through the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority
Applications (GEEMA). Support for widening state school and under
privileged students access to these institutions is also found in the
voluntary sector. Sutton, an education charity founded by Peter
Lample an entrepreneur and philanthropist, has undertaken to invest
between 500,000 and one million pounds sterling a year to sponsor
initiatives to support ``able young people from non-privileged
backgrounds.'' Last year the organisation matched government funding of
250,000 pounds to pay for partnerships between private and state
More recently, the government has announced plans to pay
undergraduates to tell school children why they should go to
university. The Student Mentor Scheme is now being piloted and will
target the government's Education Action Zones - areas in which
schools are deemed to be failing their pupils.
A spokesperson from the Department for Education and Employment said:
"The idea is to try to break the chain of people from deprived
backgrounds who haven't got any experience of higher education not
going on to university. We want to help people break out of their
peer group and family circle and go for it.''
The Secretary Oxford Colleges Admissions Office
Wellington Square, Oxford, United Kingdom, OX1 2JD
Cambridge Intercollegiate Applications Office
Kellet Lodge, Tennis
Court Road, Cambridge, United Kingdom, CB2 1QJ
Telephone: +44 1223
Fax: +44 1223 366383
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