Poor pupils ‘being set up to fail’, top university warns

Forcing universities to admit rising numbers of teenagers with lower entry grades risks setting them up to “fail”, one of Britain’s most prestigious institutions has warned. In an unprecedented intervention, St Andrews University said it was “utterly dishonest” to dumb down admissions requirements to create a more socially-balanced student body. This is from the Telegraph…

Problems with children’s upbringing and schooling were to blame for a lack of working-class students claiming places at the country’s elite universities, it was claimed.

Stephen Magee, St Andrews’ vice-principal with responsibility for admissions, said that politicians could not continue to “lay responsibility for widening access solely at the door of universities”.

It represents the strongest criticism yet levelled by an individual university towards policies designed to force institutions to boost access to students from the poorest families.

SNP ministers in Edinburgh are demanding that Scottish universities sign new “outcome agreements” that will see them given public funding on the condition they agree to “widen access”.

It reflects a similar process in England where universities have been forced to draw up targets to boost the number of disadvantaged students admitted each year in return for retaining the power to charge up to £9,000 in tuition fees.

Prof Les Ebdon, head of the Government’s Office for Fair Access, has told the most sought-after universities to set the most “stretching” targets.

Speaking at a conference in London on Monday, he said the overall number of poor pupils admitted into higher education had increased by a third over the last decade but insisted numbers had failed to rise at the most prestigious institutions.

Data published earlier this year by the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that more than half of top universities recruited fewer pupils from the very poorest families in 2010/11. Two-thirds of institutions belonging to the elite Russell Group also recruited proportionally fewer state school students.

Prof Ebdon has previously suggested that universities can use “contextual data” – information on applicants’ family background and school performance – to make lower grade offers to disadvantaged applicants.

St Andrews, whose alumni include the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, has faced fierce criticism north of the border for admitting only 14 children from the poorest backgrounds last year.

In a statement published on Tuesday, Mr Magee promised to redouble its efforts to accept more, but warned it faces a “considerable and continuing challenge” because so few school leavers in deprived areas are achieving even the most basic entry grades for a degree course.

“We have a choice – we can continue to beat up our leading universities for failing to admit more kids from our most deprived areas, or we can start, without shame or blame, to ask if perhaps there is something going wrong throughout the whole equation,” he said.

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