Should universities give preference to applicants from poor backgrounds?

Janet Downs's picture
Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel leads a discussion at the London School of Economics on access to universities. He notes that any suggestion that English universities should consider the background of a student as well as exam grades is met with a storm of protest. In his discussion he tackles the meaning of discrimination, meritocracy, and the purpose of universities including whether they promote justice and fairness.

The 40 minute debate is available on BBC I-Player until 2099.

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 09/04/2012 - 08:39

I've been involved in this issues for a long time and was at the Westminster Education Forum where it was discussed in most depth.

I've been involved in setting up and running an Oxbridge Access scheme which spans several schools and has now been running for 13 years. I've always been tremendously grateful for the support we've received from Oxbridge Colleges which has been overwhelming at times. They've allowed us extra places so we can involve more students than are seriously likely to apply to help us change the social perception of Oxbridge and we've also been able to take extra teachers to help us educate and build the confidence of our staff regarding life at Oxbridge and the applications process.

I remember in our first year - we took about 12 students who had not had a parent or close role model go to university and one who had a university educated parent and siblings. We were delighted that that this last student go in to Cambridge but a little concerned that none of the others had, so over time we have paid particular attention to the progress of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

After all these years and despite all our efforts and there now being a steady stream of students going to Oxbridge, not a single one of our students from disadvantaged backgrounds has ever got an offer from Oxbridge. They get interviews but they do not get offers and this is not to do with their academic ability.

As I work through practice interviews with these students it is very clear to see the differences between the two groups of students. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are very withdrawn. Because I am an experienced teacher I am able to step out of role, put them at ease and get the best out of them and I see things in them they clearly fail to show their interviewers or they would have got those offers.

I think it's because they lack role models who make them believe that they are going to succeed but I'm not sure. I also think many Oxbridge interviewers fail to understand and work effectively with the differences between two students from the same school - one of whom has professional parents and has had all the benefits of and inspirational home life and extra curricular activities that most students from private schools have had and the other of whom is from a single parent family where mum does a low skilled job and there's never been any money at all.

My suggestion to remedy this is that a system be set up between Oxbridge and schools whereby students who have obtained interviews but who have no parent who has been to university and a low household income are identified and that there is email or telephone communication between an interviewer and that student's school to explore how an early part of the first of their interviews can be constructed specifically to put that student in their comfort zone and make them relax and shine before later parts of the interview go on to stretch them and put them out of their comfort zone.

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