The “Admissions in Context” report by the Sutton Trust, published this week, is thorough, balanced, and considered, and the diagnosis – that Britain has a social mobility problem which is preventing poor children getting to university – is certainly accurate. The recommended prescription, “give poor pupils a break” by getting universities to drop their entry requirements by two grades for the most disadvantaged pupils, also has its merits. It’s true that a state school pupil with three A grades at A level is statistically more likely to fare well at university than his or her private school peer with the same credentials, and that’s not surprising: university is supposed to harvest academic potential, and if someone has already been pushed and coached to the outer limits of their ability at a world-class independent school, there is sometimes little potential left to harvest.
Based on that fact alone, and there is plenty of evidence in the report to back it up, it seems logical that the Sutton Trust reached the conclusion it did. It is clearly more impressive to achieve two As and a B grade at A level when all your classmates are receiving Cs than it is to achieve three A grades when all your classmates are achieving three or four A stars – and that truth should be factored into universities’ admissions criteria.
So far, so sensible. Clearly, there are some issues; most obviously, if children from certain postcodes are routinely failing to reach the entry requirements for the top universities, then we must conclude that certain schools are letting their pupils down, and addressing this problem by lowering university standards rather than raising school standards is like treating a cancer with paracetamol. But as the Trust points out, we do not live in a perfect world, and “contextualised places” could offer a useful interim solution while the plethora of problems in the schooling system are being addressed.
But there is a sticking point. If you read the report closely, it becomes apparent that the Trust’s main recommendation is not that universities should start offering so-called “contextualised places”. It is clear from their research that many of the best are already offering such places. But they suggest that they should tell their applicants about them before they apply. According to the report “just four universities indicated that all contextually eligible applicants would be guaranteed a reduced grade offer… [and] this lack of transparency is a barrier to access, as potentially eligible students may be unaware that they could benefit”.
Here is where the Trust has got it wrong. The students who thrive at university are not only bright, but ambitious. They set their hearts on top universities, and after working as hard as they can to get there, they jump on every opportunity they are offered when they arrive. This sort of ambition can be nurtured and developed with the help of good teachers and academics, but it can’t be given on a plate. The sort of student who applies to a Russell Group University, gets offered a place based on academic potential, misses his/her entry requirements by a few marks because of personal circumstances, and then calls the university in question to ask if the university will be lenient, is someone who will probably do well in higher education. The sort of student who doesn’t think to apply to a top university until someone tells them that they are eligible for special circumstances may not be so suited to that particular type of education, and probably wouldn’t benefit from it as much.
University admissions tutors, unlike politicians and SW1 think-tankers, are well aware of this. As the Sutton Trust report makes clear, the vast majority of Russell Group universities are prepared to accept applicants who have been offered a place but miss their A level entry requirement grades by a few marks. Tutors enjoy teaching those with potential, and will naturally make allowances for “context” when they see fit.
It is a source of great pride that Britain is home to five of the top twenty-five universities in the world. But at the moment, politicians and think-tanks seem to be forgetting that this reputation for excellence is thanks to the work of the staff, not the interference of government. Deciding which students should be admitted to any particular university is an art, not a science, and admissions tutors will always do a better job than formulas or quotas. They should be left to get on with it.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary