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2000 Archives

Elite British Universities Considering More Open Admissions Policy
By Ruth Bryan

A special initiative has been launched in a bid to ensure that Britain's elite universities become more socially inclusive by encouraging students from less well off social backgrounds to apply for admission.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), the central organisation for processing all applications for entry to full-time undergraduate courses in the United Kingdom, has introduced the Forecasting and Planning Service (FPS) that provides new guidelines designed to encourage applications from students who would otherwise not bother to apply for admission to the top universities.

The FPS, launched in October 1999, has the support of the Minister for Higher Education Baroness Blackstone, vice chancellors and the education unions. The service will enable admissions officers to target areas of the country that have in the past produced few students by using the postcodes of students' addresses and then inviting pupils to apply to these institutions in an attempt to create a better social mix.

Data for the FPS is based on statistics provided by MOSAIC, a sophisticated profiling system that uses a combination of census, electoral roll, housing and financial data to classify groups into 12 lifestyle categories. It is widely used in the private sector but this is the first time it has been used to analyse higher education applicants.

Figures show that while only just over 10 per cent of British households are described as ``high income families'', over 20 per cent of UCAS applicants fall into this category. This is shown by an index figure of 190, which means that for every 100 applicants one would expect from that group in proportion to the total population, there are actually 190. For ``low rise council'' the index is 51 - only half the number of applicants one would expect if the distribution was random.

Many students from state schools don't even consider applying to Oxbridge and other elite universities because they are dissuaded from doing so by the myths and prejudices that exist regarding these institutions. Many perceive that the typical Oxbridge student is very rich, a genius and from a public school. However, the truth is there is no such thing as a typical Oxbridge student.

At Cambridge, for example, half of all new entrants in 1997 were from the state sector. However, there is still much progress to be made. In 1997, 65 per cent of students achieving top grades at A-level were from state schools yet just over 50 per cent of successful Cambridge applicants were from state schools.

The new FPS selection technique does however have its detractors who claim it is merely an attempt at social engineering. Alan Smithers, the professor of education at Liverpool University thinks there is a real danger that bright students with affluent parents will be discriminated against unfairly. Dick Davison of the Independent Schools' Information Service also expressed some doubt over the fairness of selection by postcode if it meant that decisions about marginal candidates were influenced by where the students' homes are located.

Tony Higgins, the chief executive of UCAS denies that there would be discrimination. Instead he claims that the system will help universities to satisfy government targets for widening participation in higher education and redressing the balance because people from the lower socio-economic groups are severely under represented.

The Forecasting and Planning Service is not the only scheme in operation that is trying to attract more students of high potential, irrespective of their social background, gender, race or financial resources, into centres of excellence.

Since 1998 Oxford and Cambridge have introduced campaigns to attract more applications for places from state-maintained schools in Britain. The Target Schools Scheme aims to increase the proportion of undergraduates coming from state schools by encouraging more applications to Cambridge University. The scheme mails every state sector sixth form in the country informing and giving them the opportunity to receive a talk from a Cambridge undergraduate about life at the university. At Easter, the volunteers go out to schools to give their talks.

Another part of this drive towards social inclusivity includes the Oxford ``battle bus'' scheme where undergraduates and staff tour the country and try to present a more accurate picture of life at Oxford. By sharing their stories and experiences undergraduates can help to convince the students that Oxford is both a great place to study and a fun place to live. The Oxford Access Scheme which has industry support, targets inner city areas and ethnic minorities by encouraging attendance at summer schools At Cambridge, a similar initiative is underway through the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications (GEEMA). Support for widening state school and under privileged students access to these institutions is also found in the voluntary sector. Sutton, an education charity founded by Peter Lample an entrepreneur and philanthropist, has undertaken to invest between 500,000 and one million pounds sterling a year to sponsor initiatives to support ``able young people from non-privileged backgrounds.'' Last year the organisation matched government funding of 250,000 pounds to pay for partnerships between private and state schools.

More recently, the government has announced plans to pay undergraduates to tell school children why they should go to university. The Student Mentor Scheme is now being piloted and will target the government's Education Action Zones - areas in which schools are deemed to be failing their pupils.

A spokesperson from the Department for Education and Employment said: "The idea is to try to break the chain of people from deprived backgrounds who haven't got any experience of higher education not going on to university. We want to help people break out of their peer group and family circle and go for it.''

The Secretary Oxford Colleges Admissions Office
University Office, Wellington Square, Oxford, United Kingdom, OX1 2JD
Telephone: +44 1865 270207

Cambridge Intercollegiate Applications Office
Kellet Lodge, Tennis Court Road, Cambridge, United Kingdom, CB2 1QJ
Telephone: +44 1223 333308
Fax: +44 1223 366383

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