The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are facing an unprecedented attack from government advisers for their failure to increase the number of state school pupils studying at Oxbridge colleges.
The elite institutions’ records will be criticised and individual colleges named and shamed in a hard-hitting annual report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
The failure of some majorOxbridge colleges to accept even half of their intake from state schools will be criticised in the strongest terms by the public body, the Observer has learned. The commission will say on Thursday that while attainment of top A-level grades by those from the least wealthy backgrounds is poor, with just 2.2% of the most deprived gaining good grades, these statistics offer no excuse for Oxbridge’s intake figures.
Written by the former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn and former Tory cabinet minister Gillian Shephard, his deputy on the commission, the report is expected to say that:
■ Despite an increase of 6% in the proportion of state-educated pupils between 2003-04 and 2013-14, independently schooled pupils still make up around two-fifths of the intake at both Oxford and Cambridge.
■ To meet their benchmarks for disadvantaged pupils, Oxford would need to increase the percentage of state school pupils by a quarter (24%) and Cambridge by a fifth (18%).
■ Large discrepancies between Oxbridge colleges in the number of offers to made to applicants from the state sector illustrate that many should be doing much more.
■ Some colleges make less than half of their offers to state-educated pupils. The worst performers are University College (Oxford), Robinson (Cambridge), St Peter’s (Oxford), Trinity (Oxford) and Christ Church (Oxford).
■ Even the best performers in this regard still give a quarter or more of their places to the privately educated. The Observer understands that the commission will welcome Oxbridge’s increasing use of contextual measures as a means of addressing the under-representation of lower-income and state-educated students, but demand greater and better use of it.
Three years ago the appointment of the then vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire university, Professor Les Ebdon, to head the Office for Fair Access (Offa), was nearly blocked over his championing of contextual information when offering places. Michael Gove, then education secretary, reportedly lobbied at the time that Ebdon was an advocate of social engineering rather than excellence in universities.
However, the commission will dismiss those concerns. A source said it believed that “too often in the past, university applicants have missed out because of a lack of opportunity to demonstrate their potential”.
They will provide statistics to show that poor children who are high-attaining at 11 are four times less likely to go on to an elite university than their high-attaining wealthier peers.
The source added: “It is right that where a young person has attended a poor-performing secondary school, is a care leaver or comes from an area with stubbornly low higher education participation, their predicted and actual grades should be considered in that light. The commission will call for this practice to be encouraged and continued.”
While using contextual data to judge between pupils with top grades, Oxbridge colleges have resisted reducing their A-level demands, claiming that they wish to retain their reputation for excellence.
However, under a “Realising Opportunities” scheme involving 16 universities including Bristol, UCL, Exeter, Warwick and York, tutors are allowed to give offers which are two grades below course entry requirements.
The eligibility criteria include evidence that the pupil lives in a neighbourhood which has a low progression rate to higher education or an area which has a high level of financial, social or economic deprivation; comes from a home where neither parent attended university in the UK or abroad; is in receipt of or entitled to discretionary payments; is in receipt of or entitled to free school meals.
Earlier this year Offa prompted an angry reaction from some of the country’s top institutions when it called for a doubling of admissions of teenagers from poor families over the next five years. In 2011, 22,000 teenagers (20%) from the poorest fifth of school-leavers, went to university. Offa wants that to increase to 40,000.
Damien Shannon, who sued St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 2013 when, despite winning a postgraduate place on academic merit, he was told that without £12,900 to fund living costs he would not be welcome, applauded the commission’s intentions.
The son of a single mother from a council estate in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, Shannon said he had only applied to Oxford after a chance meeting with a professor who said he was “quite bright and should have a go”. Shannon decided to represent himself in a legal action against the college’s extremely expensive and hostile barristers on the grounds that it was discriminating against poor pupils.
Despite initially appearing to take a hard line, the college put up the white flag and settled out of court. It gave him his place and it reviewed and reformed its policies. Shannon is now a high-flying civil servant.
Shannon, who did his first degree at Salford university and the Open university, said: “I loved my time at St Hugh’s and I go back all the time now. But studying there as an undergraduate would not have occurred to me in a million years, no more than living in Buckingham Palace.”
Looking down the list of the worst-performing Oxbridge colleges, Shannon said he could also also see a trend. “The decision on admissions is made by the colleges and not the faculty for undergraduates,” he said. “I have always thought that was a mistake. I don’t know how a college can divorce an academic decision from the knowledge that a candidate who comes with resources may be more useful for the college in the future.
“I do not think it is any coincidence that the richest colleges are the ones who seem minded to accept the richest applicants.”
Shannon, 29, who now gives talks to pupils at Paddington Academy in London on attaining a place at Oxbridge, added: “Contextual data is not a new idea it has just gone out of vogue. A man called David Miliband, who went on to be foreign secretary, received a place at Oxford University on the basis of contextual data.
“If it was a good idea 30 years ago, it is a good idea today. If it was right for David Miliband, then I don’t see why it wouldn’t be right for the children from poorer backgrounds today.