I am grateful to William Richardson, General Secretary of HMC, for much of the information in this post.
There is a great deal in the press at present about open access to universities and a recurring feature of this is a suggestion that pupils from independent schools should be discriminated against. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) of which the High School is a part do a great deal of research into university recruitment and in a recent report they have found that far from being discriminated against pupils who attend independent schools have extremely good prospects. Their main findings were as follows:
- in recent years we have no evidence of any bias by leading universities against our candidates;
- our school leavers do exceptionally well because sixth form attainment is the key determinant of which students get to which university;
- in 2012 a greater proportion of students at HMC schools than ever before secured their place of choice at a leading UK university.
The reason why prospects look so good is that universities are currently struggling to fill all their places. Overall numbers taking up university places in England fell by 14% compared to 2011 and the government’s decision to allow universities to offer places to all those gaining AAB or better in their A levels meant that such pupils were at a premium. 79200 achieved this level compared with a predicted number of 85,000 which left many universities with excess places on their hands. Virtually all HMC candidates who secured AAB, along with some who did not, secured good places. Across the Russell Group of leading universities there were 11,500 unfilled places out of a total annual intake of around 91,000. Next year the picture will change as the government is opening up places to those who gain ABB so releasing at least 23,000 more students for universities to offer places to and the government will guarantee to fund these places at whichever university they attend. It is likely then that all candidates achieving at this sort of level for the majority of courses will be fought over by universities eager to attract the funding which they will bring. Demographic pressures over the next few years also arise from a falling cohort of 18 year olds. Thus, it is felt that students who gain good grades irrespective of their school background are likely to be offered places. Oxbridge remains as competitive as ever but elsewhere the Chief Executive of UCAS predicts: “within a couple of years we have moved from candidates chasing places to places chasing candidates.”
Is this picture likely to change? In a recent report by Alan Milburn on social mobility it described on p. 24, why universities should NOT seek to filter applications based on the school background of candidates because: ‘school type [is a] fairly blunt measure of disadvantage… The school type indicator does not take full account of the fact that some pupils who attend private schools come from poor backgrounds, while many wealthy people attend state schools. In my consultations with universities it became apparent that there may be unintended consequences if the Government and universities focus purely on these indicators’.
This is a critical point and hopefully this will influence future public debate on this important area. Attracting more disadvantaged students to university is a worthy aim but this should be done in the context of greater availability of places and by targeting such students irrespective of their school background. So much of the press discussion on this topic misses this point.
All in all though, the picture for independent school students is nowhere near as bad as we are led to believe. Universities continue to seek to attract the brightest students irrespective of where they go to school and long may this continue.