‘Open up!’ ministers tell top universities

Selective universities will have to 'earn' higher tuition fees by showing they welcome, even seek out, talent from all backgrounds. Class war or sensible change?

'Get your tanks off our lawns!'

That was the outraged reaction from the head of one Oxford college when the last set of government ministers tried to influence the ancient university's admissions.

Benchmarks were imposed by Labour to put pressure on top universities to accept more students from state schools. But after years of wrangling little progress was made in changing the intake profile.

Recent research shows that private school students are 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxford or Cambridge than the poorest students at state schools.

Campaigners say it's 'a waste of talent'. So now the current government is trying again. Their tool is the new, much higher tuition fees, which will be charged to students from next year.

The new ceiling for fees is £9,000 per year, but any higher education institution wanting to charge more than £6,000 will have to prove it is opening up to the brightest kids from all parts of society.

Here's the problem: a good degree from a top university opens up the path to a successful and interesting career in a range of professions, from business and politics to the arts and the media.

Because they still dominate the top universities, private schools give their pupils a better chance of achieving positions of power. The Sutton Trust, an education charity, found that a third of MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge. A rising proportion, 35 per cent, went to a private school.

Although dominated by posh boys (there are more men from Magdalen College Oxford than women in the cabinet), the government calls it 'social segregation' and wants to shake up the system to allow able pupils from all sorts of schools and backgrounds to rise to the top. Today they will introduce more stringent checks on whether universities are doing enough to find and encourage hidden talent.

Pass or fail
The buzzword is 'social mobility' – the extent to which people in our society can rise without coming from a family that is already wealthy and well-educated.

It's about fairness and making sure the country benefits from what everyone can offer. But universities are worried about being made to solve all society's class issues single-handed – they ask why state schools aren't helping enough pupils achieve the grades they need to get in.

Should universities take students on the grades they have achieved or on potential waiting to be fulfilled?

You Decide

  1. Is success in later life important to you? How would you define it – education, career, family, money or something else?
  2. If your own child was well-educated but not as naturally clever as someone else's, would you be happy to see the other child get the coveted university place?


  1. Design a poster/graphic or create a short dramatic scene either for or against posh people. Or maybe for and against!
  2. Do some research on student life at a British university. Write a description of your imaginary first week away from home, meeting new people and getting to grips with the work.

Some People Say...

“University is for time wasters.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why all this fuss?
Only 2 per cent of students at the 25 most academically-selective universities in the UK came from poor backgrounds. Nearly 26 per cent had been to private schools, when only 7 per cent of families use them. It's not representative.
Isn't it best to pick the cleverest, though?
Top universities have to select from multiple applicants for each place based on grades, an interview and potential. The government wants them to make allowances for those who haven't had the intensive university entrance coaching private schools are good at.
Sounds like an open and shut case.
No, it's a political minefield. Universities say they strive to choose the best candidates, and schools have to try harder to push talented poorer pupils toward the best universities.

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