National Comment Comment

Contextual offers must be adopted

University offers should be adjusted for the advantaged and disadvantaged alike

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Currently to achieve the aim of making universities more reflective of society as a whole, the lens has been focused on in-creasing representation of those who are underrepresented. That action is an incredibly positive step and should be welcomed, but it does not address the alternative face of educational in-equality in the UK that is clear in our universities the overrepresentation of those who attended independent schools.

Research by the Sutton Trust shows just how stark this educational divide is. Those who attend independent schools are twice as likely to go on to attend a Russell Group university, and seven times- yes, seven times - as likely to go to Oxbridge. For as long as this disparity exists, no matter how much work we do on improving access and participation in the HE sector, we will not truly deal with educational inequality in the UK. It gets worse. According to HESA data,the percentage of students from low participation neighbourhoods (LPNs) in higher education is roughly the same as the percentage of students coming from a privately educated background.

Yet while 20 per cent of the population live in LPNs, only 6.5 per cent are privately educated. Even here at York, an institution that was founded on the principle of opportunity for all, there is a clear overrepresentation of the privately educated compared to those from LPNs - 17.4 per cent to 8.2 per cent. But should this really surprise us? Research conducted by Durham University shows that receiving a private education is equivalent to an extra two years of schooling before the age of 16.

To be clear, that is not the difference between attending Eton and a school in one of the most deprived areas in the UK such as Middlesbrough. That figure is the difference between your average state school and your average independent school - the difference between Eton and a school in Middlesbrough, Hull, or another deprived area is likely much, much higher.

With that in mind, we need to recognise that if we are serious about improving access and participation, we need to tackle the over-representation of the educationally advantaged. Some would advocate the abolition of private education,but that does not sit well with me- it is after all only human nature to want the best possible education for your child. But the current situation cannot continue without making a mockery of any attempts to make our higher education sector more representative of wider society.

That is why we should be bold, and make contextual offers truly contextual. The current system of lowering offers for those who have faced educational disadvantage is widely agreed in fairness, and has markedly improved access. And it is only common sense that some-one who has achieved AAA at a bog-standard comprehensive has likely had to work harder for that than someone doing so at the Etons and Harrows of the world.

Not only should we lower offers based on context, we should raise them as well. It is the radical step forward on access and participation we need to take.

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