As a disadvantaged student, I wanted to prove I could get the top grades
“Elite universities told to lower entry grades,” ran a headline in The Times yesterday. It referred to a report just released by researchers at the University of Durham — a report that contains eight recommendations with the aim of making university admissions fairer.
Fairness in university admissions is a pressing issue — data published the year that I matriculated shows that Cambridge admits more students from the most privileged 20% of postcodes than from the bottom 80% combined, and the picture at other top universities is little better.
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The old meritocratic ideal of ‘equality of opportunity,’ the Durham report says, is a myth. Instead, they favour ‘equity of opportunity’ — presented in this context as the idea that prospective students’ grades should be “judged in light of the socioeconomic circumstances in which they were obtained.” According to their own research, between two-thirds and three-quarters of selectors at old universities already use this kind of contextual data to inform their admissions decisions — but the report goes one further.
They suggest that prestigious universities should drop their entry requirements by several grades when considering the applications of disadvantaged students, simply as a matter of course.
When I applied to Cambridge, I was living in supported housing for young people at risk of homelessness. I had two GCSEs, a failed psychology A level, a year’s experience of working a minimum-wage job, and very little else to recommend me — aside from the encouraging reports of my teachers, and a near-religious mania about university. I went to my interview in a charity shop jumper and with holes in my shoes. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, regardless of my circumstances — when I succeeded, the impact on my self-worth was huge.
I am not saying the disadvantaged should do a Norman Tebbit. That’s not what I did at all. I was surrounded by support: I never would have made the grade without it. I lived in a supported housing project; I was on income and housing benefits; my sixth form college granted me a fortnightly bursary. Cambridge asks applicants to fill in a ‘special circumstances’ form, which gave me a chance to explain my circumstances directly. These things went some way towards establishing the equality of opportunity that the authors of the Durham report so easily dismiss.
This is one reason to reject the equity approach advocated in the Durham report. Equity — an increasingly fashionable concept — removes the agency of potential applicants, turning them into a collection of disadvantaged traits to be accounted for rather than individuals struggling through difficult circumstances. It’s a massive cop-out — reducing entry requirements for disadvantaged students manipulates the outcome of a broken system without ever addressing its root causes.
The recent foundation year scheme announced by Cambridge does not seem to fall into this equity trap. Its entry requirements are lower than those of undergraduate degrees, but the foundation year represents an opportunity for disadvantaged students to prove themselves, just like the chance I once wanted.
Schemes like this are powerful — yet for all but the 50 students a year accepted on to the course, what changes? If the authors of the Durham report are correct that equality of opportunity in Britain is a myth then perhaps it’s time to turn away from the patronising and superficial solutions that equity theory suggests. It’s the root causes that need to be attended to.