Poor students still need help to get in to the best universities

Many poorer students in Britain are eligible for places at top universities, but are still being rejected for non-academic reasons. Leading educational institutes should go further to bridge the gap between the poorest students and the best education to better reflect British diversity. 


Written by Adam Sinclair Charles

For many years there have been discussions among the highest-ranking universities and politicians to address the issue of diversity. It is imperative to value social and cultural variety in student bodies, but some universities fail to attract or even accept members of under-represented social and racial groups.

Whilst there are some schemes in place to help such students, they do not always have the desired effect. The fact that Oxford University accepted one black Caribbean student in 2011 highlights the extent of the problem.

Current ‘Solutions’ to the Lack of Diversity

The Universities and Colleges Applications System (UCAS) was founded in 1994 to provide a level playing field between richer and poorer students. Every student in the United Kingdom who wants to apply to university must write a personal statement, underlining their experiences and their reasons for applying. Universities claim to recognize that exam grades can be affected by social factors such as family situations and the quality of the school, and the UCAS personal statement has long been heralded as a non-academic way to assess an applicant’s potential. But this method has come under scrutiny. Critics suggest that those from more affluent backgrounds are often given extra help to write their personal statements by their schools, parents or private tutors.
– Anecdotal evidence suggests that some staff and parents advise to the extent where the personal statement cannot be seen as the applicant’s own work, says academic Robert. M Brown.
– Students without help may feel themselves to be composing in a rhetorical void in which they must write in an unfamiliar genre for an audience that they do not know nor will likely ever meet.
Naturally, there is a gulf in the personal statements of students who do not attend private schools and those who do. If the same level of attention is not shown to poorer students, the UCAS personal statement cannot be seen a fair way to assess students who have the same academic ability.

The best universities generally use the same system to judge whether applicants are capable enough, regardless of socio-economic background. Either through a series of aptitude tests for the particular subject, or supplementary questionnaires.

Oxford’s Innovation To Improve Diversity

But Oxford University has come up with a particular idea that uses a special system to ensure bright applicants from poor backgrounds receive the fairest interview possible. During the applications process they are ‘flagged up’ to admissions tutors. Students are flagged if their school is below the national average at GCSE or A-Level, if they have been in care for more than three months or come from a deprived postcode. Oxford Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, has stated that all barriers will be removed for less fortunate students if they have the required ability, and it would seem this removal of barriers has proved relatively successful.

According to figures, 573 candidates who came from deprived postcodes were shortlisted for interviews after being flagged by Oxford. 185 subsequently won offers, showing a rise of 75% in one year. While there has been improvement, the statistics show that there is still work to be done. 61% of applicants from schools and colleges with a history of sending students to Oxford were accepted in 2012. But change is taking place.

OFFA (Office For Fair Access) is largely responsible for the improvement of diversity in many of the top universities. After tuition fees were raised officially in 2010, OFFA was created as an independent, non-departmental public body to promote access to higher education for under-represented groups.

Bath University Lecture Hall
Photo – Adam Charles

As part of their role, they work closely with universities such as Bath, which highly value diversity. In doing so, Bath and OFFA aim to reduce the barriers to higher education for students from low-income backgrounds.
– We believe that university provides the opportunity to meet and work with a wide range of people from all backgrounds. With a more diverse and cultural student population, the experience of university is enhanced and provides an excellent preparation for working life, says Martine Woodward, a representative of the Widening Participation Office at Bath University.
– With the help of OFFA we’ve managed to increase the number of applicants from low participation groups at a time when competition for places is very fierce. Although financial issues are important, those from families without tradition of higher education need more information. So we encourage such students to attend our tailor-made library workshops, taster days and summer schools.
What More Can Be Done? 

Schemes such as Oxford’s flagging system and Bath University taster days are good starting points, but universities still need to go further and push the boundaries by going into schools to work directly with those in deprived postcodes.

In theory the schemes may be a good idea. But if the students who need it most are not being helped sufficiently, the universities’ efforts are futile.

– It’s not only about having taster days, it’s about letting the right students in the right schools know that you’re having these taster days and opening the range of information to more people. Often universities work with the schools that respond but if they really want to tackle this problem, they need to go into the schools that don’t respond because they most likely don’t see the point, says Gary Jarrett, Enterprise Advisor at Robert Clack School.

Russel Group - lack of diversity
•    St Andrews – where Prince William attended University – only admitted 14 students from the poorest backgrounds
•    80% of universities now charge over €7,000 for tuition fees per year
•    Two thirds of universities in the Russell Group admitted fewer state school students than those outside this group
Gary Jarrett

Enterprise Advisor – Gary Jarrett
Photo – Adam Charles

– Some universities are doing quite well and others aren’t doing so well. Most universities will have some things to entice students. But what can they do more? I think they have to go where the people are.
– My job is to raise aspirations in both the council and in the students themselves to let them know that they actually can go to the best universities.
Robert Clack School is located in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham. Although more students qualify for university here than in neighboring borough Newham, the number of students in higher education is still low. A third of the 19-year-olds in Barking & Dagenham have qualifications lower than GCSE level or have no qualifications at all. The work being done at Robert Clack by Mr. Jarrett is unique. He believes that if more schools were to have initiatives in place like the ones he has created, the best universities would be more inclined to pay attention to poorer schools.
– In poor areas like Barking and Dagenham you’ll find that people who want to get into medicine for example, their fathers weren’t doctors or they don’t have any contacts in the industry.
– So that’s why I’ve started a medical society where students can come in and see what types of work experience they need and speak to people in the profession.
By specifically mentoring students to find out what they need and creating study programs specifically tailored to their needs, he has created hundreds of success stories over the years. Many of who have attended universities ranked within the top 10. This formula has proven to work.

Perhaps, the way to increase diversity within the top universities then is to have people working at grass roots level. Allowing them to lay the ground work, with programs such as the Widening Participation Scheme that Bath have in place to catch the most capable students. Regardless, the situation of poorer students is improving, but students such as Kelvin James and those at Robert Clack School still need more help.


Enterprise Advisor Gary Jarrett speaking about how to improve diversity in top British universities and why it’s an important issue.