Universal Cure

Here’s a simple means of transforming the UK’s universities, schools and society

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th May 2010

None of them work. The elaborate schemes supposed to widen access to the UK’s top universities – the summer schools, the mentoring programmes, the taster days, the bursaries and scholarships – have failed. The proportion of poor students these universities accept has fallen over the past 15 years.

A new report by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) shows that intelligent children from the 20% of richest homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%(1). In the mid-1990s they were six times more likely(2). The better the college, the worse it becomes. The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes the figures for individual universities. I’ve just been through the spreadsheets. In 2002-3, when the data begin(3), 5.4% of students at Cambridge and 5.8% of students at Oxford came from “low participation neighbourhoods”(4). By 2008-9, the proportion had fallen to 3.7% and 2.7%(5). This has happened despite thirteen years of a Labour government which listed its priorities as “education, education, education”, and tens of millions spent – particularly by Oxford and Cambridge – on outreach and encouragement.

People of my social background (upper middle class, public school) dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships, most importantly through our attendance at the top universities, we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, shows that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools(6). Even the beneficiaries should be able to see that this system is grotesque, invidious and socially destructive.

Children from privileged homes begin to creep ahead of their peers long before school begins: the link between background and attainment, OFFA says, is evident at 22 months(7). But schooling widens the gap. By the time they sit GCSEs, the children of higher professionals are nearly three times as likely to get five good grades as the children of people in routine work(8). Fewer working class children take A-levels and those who do get lower scores. Pupils at private schools account for some 15% of entries but take around 30% of A grades(9).

But this isn’t just about grades. Even when children from poorer homes do well, they are less likely to apply to the top universities. Going by grades alone, there’s a shortfall of some 4500 state sector pupils who should, all else being equal, enrol on the UK’s top courses(10). These students aren’t applying partly because their schools don’t encourage them to do so; partly because they feel that the top universities aren’t for the likes of them.

Private schools, by comparison, groom their pupils for Oxford and Cambridge. They pass from the quadrangles of Eton to the quadrangles of Oxford with a sense of entitlement. (Many of them spend the rest of their lives nannied in quadrangles, at the Bar and the Palace of Westminster. They then instruct everyone else to stand on their own two feet).

So what is to be done? The Offa report is coherent and persuasive – until it starts making recommendations. It documents the utter failure of existing measures to redress the problem. It makes the startling observation that “there is no clear correlation” between the efforts a university makes to widen admission and the results of those efforts(11). It then proposes a radical and dynamic programme of, er, more of the same. More summer schools, more outreach, better bursaries and scholarships, more “promoting good practice”, even though we know this good practice doesn’t work. These complex and expensive measures are necessary, it says, because “the solution was never going to be short or simple.”(12) It is wrong.

There is a short and simple solution, first proposed 11 years ago by the journalist Peter Wilby(13). Oxford and Cambridge, he suggested, should offer places to the top one or two pupils from every school, regardless of grades. The next-best universities would offer places to the pupils who come third and fourth, and so on downwards. There would be some adjustment for the size of the school, but the brutal logic holds.

Sit back for a moment and let the implications sink in. The system wouldn’t be perfectly fair, because of the advantages privileged children enjoy from the beginning, though it would be a heck of a lot fairer than the current arrangement. Instead of scrambling to insert their children into the best state schools, pushy parents would seek to enrol them in the worst. As Nick Davies’s investigation of the schools crisis in the Guardian showed, the overwhelming reason why some schools fail is that “the bright middle-class children are being siphoned off into private schools and a minority of state schools … The system fails because it is segregated.”(14) Under Wilby’s programme, no longer.

Private schools would collapse overnight: the last place you’d want to put your child is where other ambitious parents have sent theirs. The top universities would no longer be enclaves of the privileged: working class children would feel that they have just as much right to be there as the scions of the posh. The middle class flight to good catchment areas would screech into reverse as wealthy families extract themselves from their comfortable ghettos. Social mixing begins both in and out of school.

It is not quite the end of the matter. There would still be a need for outreach programmes, taster days and bursaries, but this time they would work, as bright students of all backgrounds would know that they stood an equal chance. There would still be a need for Sure Start and other means of tackling disadvantage from birth. Rich parents would still seek to help their children get to the top by buying them extra tuition. There are two answers to this. The expensive one is to offer extra tuition, free of charge, to everyone. The cheap one is to dock the positions of those who receive it.

Wilby’s revolutionary idea was greeted by government and educational reformers with a momentous thunderclap of … silence. Governments can do what they like to help the disadvantaged, as long as they don’t threaten the privileges of the ruling classes. This programme has not been adopted for one obvious reason: it would work. The far safer course is the one promoted in the OFFA report: wring your hands, spend some money, but for God’s sake don’t solve the problem, unless you want the most powerful classes in open revolt.

When this idea was first published, the government could at least claim that it was trying something else. The something else didn’t work. Let’s make the real solution impossible to ignore.



1. Martin Harris, April 2010. Released May 2010. What more can be done to widen access to highly selective universities? Office for Fair Access. http://www.offa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Sir-Martin-Harris-Fair-Access-report-web-version.pdf

2. ibid.

3. http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=category&sectionid=2&id=32&Itemid=141

4. http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php/content/view/455/141/

5. http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1684&Itemid=141

6. The Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, 2009.
Unleashing Aspiration. Figure 1f, p18. http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/227102/fair-access.pdf

7. Martin Harris, ibid. Page 18.

8. 76% vs 28%. Page 19.

9. Page 20.

10. Page 24.

11. Page 34.

12. Page 9.

13. Peter Wilby, 26th March 1999. Give every school an Oxbridge place. The New Statesman.

14. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/1999/sep/15/nickdavies