Cambridge University, Widening Participation and the Government

What follows first appeared on the Times Higher Education blog platform on February 2nd 2016 (this is the unedited version). At the bottom I add a footnote about further developments since I first drafted this piece mainly regarding Cambridge admissions tests.

Cambridge is not the Villain, Mr Cameron

David Cameron is concerned about the opportunities that are offered to Black and Minority Ethnics (BAMEs) in the UK. He is right to be concerned. For everything from police stop-and-search statistics to criminal sentencing there is evidence to suggest this section of our population gets a raw deal. But throwing out blanket accusations without looking at the evidence is unhelpful to say the least. Suggesting he is planning new requirements to force universities – with a particular stress on ‘elite’ universities such as Oxbridge – to reveal how many black applicants and students from poor backgrounds are accepted is rather wide of the mark given that both Oxford and my own university of Cambridge have published this data for some years. We are not trying to hide anything. His statement may correctly state that if you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university, but, although he would like you to read that sentence as implying Cambridge is at fault, that is simply typical Government spin which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Cambridge University is also ahead of the game when it comes to monitoring the gender pay gap, another area where fingers are being pointed: for some years it was the only Russell Group University to publish its Equal Pay Review, although others may be playing catch-up now.

Cameron admits ‘if you’re black it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white.’ That certainly has little to do with Oxbridge admissions policies and much more to do with the judiciary. It is good that David Lammy will look into this apparent discrimination in the courtroom. One has to wonder how much of the inconsistency in sentences is conscious and how much unconscious on the part of the judges. Either way, there is clearly work to be done.

Are ‘elite’ universities really sitting on their hands doing nothing? In fact they’re rather hard at work to improve the situation and to encourage the widest possible selection of candidates to apply. In Cambridge, there is a long-running initiative and a specific programme designed to reach out to BAME children in Year 9 to get them thinking about university and, by bringing them here, demystifying the place. Starting way before a UCAS form is waved in front of their faces is crucial.

In another bleak statistic out this week in a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, it was shown that the poorest children in Cambridge’s local schools performed less well than those in London’s most deprived areas. Active discrimination? Unlikely. In fact for many years, Cambridgeshire schools have been underfunded compared with neighbouring counties. This was the legacy of a 1980s Conservative county council who slashed local education spending. Back then, the primary school my children were attending had to shed the assistants who helped the sizeable group of Bangladeshi children who did not speak English at home to master the language they were being taught in. The funding has never caught up. In 2013, the then MP Julian Huppert said ‘We receive £600 less per pupil than the English average for schools block funding…. Cambridgeshire kids deserve what everyone else gets”. During the last year, this shortfall has finally been made up largely as a result of Huppert’s actions but it will take time for this to increase numbers from the poorest families entering Cambridge. Don’t blame Cambridge for the failure. Look to who controls the purse strings that directly impact on children’s opportunities.

So, despite what the press may say and how they may interpret Cameron’s remarks, Cambridge University (and Cambridge schools) are not the bad guys in these stories. By publishing statistics on admission success rates by ethnicity of applicants and on its gender pay gap, we are ahead of where Cameron wants us to be without any legal enforcement. Monitoring is the first step towards devising strategies to improve. The figures may not yet be pretty, but people can only know that because they’re public. Other universities need to be more transparent. Indeed, when it comes to widening participation, Cambridge is also clear that another headline Government policy would be liable to cause yet more problems, as their response to the HE Green paper makes very clear: ‘…we do not support the linkage between TEF and fees: it is bound to affect student decision-making adversely, and in particular it may deter students from low income families from applying to the best universities.’

Cambridge University is far too easily caricatured as an out of date collection of toffs, but this Government claims to be interested in evidence-based policy. Perhaps it and the associated press reporting, might like to focus on evidence-based statements and analysis too to provide a little more accuracy in their stories.

Footnote added on February 3rd

On February 2nd the details of the new admissions tests that the University is introducing from 2017 were announced. This is not a decision the University has taken lightly. Certainly my own College has up till now relied very heavily on the objective marks obtained in AS levels which will no longer be (necessarily) available to us. So, some other objective measure is sought and admissions tests seem to be the least bad answer. As the the University’s director of admissions Dr Sam Lucy wrote in a letter to schools and colleges that the tests would provide

“valuable additional evidence of our applicants’ academic abilities, knowledge base and potential to succeed in the Cambridge course for which they have applied. This move is a result of responding to teacher and student feedback, a desire to harmonise and simplify our existing use of written assessments and a need to develop new ways to maintain the effectiveness and fairness of our admissions system during ongoing qualification reform”.

Once again the University has had to adopt a position (because of Government action in removing AS as part of A levels) that was not our first choice. However as usual politicians, this time from Labour, are swift to imply the University is doing something that will harm widening participation.

Alan Milburn is quoted in the Guardian as saying

“But looked at through the social mobility lens, it clearly has the potential to raise a further barrier to equal access. Bright students from less advantaged backgrounds tend to miss out on the intensive tutoring their better-off peers receive.”

I cannot believe he thinks that interview candidates at select schools are less likely to cause these sorts of problems so, given the numbers of excellent candidates applying, Colleges such as mine try to focus on hard figures which can be objectively compared. On this occasion, they have been removed. The evidence from the consultation period is that state schools are supportive and understand the logic of the move to tests.

Finally, to return to Cameron’s complaints about BAME admissions, it was heartening to see state school headteachers defending the University because of all the hard work we put into widening participation activities. Schools are very aware of this even if the Government has failed to check up.




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