By Harry Flannery
Recent revelations showing Durham to be the second-worst performing university in terms of the ratio of independent to state school students are deeply worrying.
As a leading higher education institution, Durham is tasked with providing the nation with its future business leaders, academics, politicians, and civil servants.
Reports that only 60.5 per cent of Durham undergraduates (fulltime first degree entrants) attended state-funded schools highlights that Durham is producing a workforce that is not representative of the society it serves, calling into question whether the University is doing its job properly.
For a society to function fairly, it is important for those from all walks of life to have access to the highest academic standards.
However, it is clear that this is not the case. With 56 per cent of state school pupils and 60 per cent of private school pupils going to university, at a glance it may seem the disparity between the two sectors is not significant.
However, when the types of institutions pupils from the two sectors are attending is revealed, the figures highlight a worrying trend. Private school pupils are twice as likely to attend Russell Group universities and five times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
This disparity has damaging effects on social mobility in the UK, ensuring that power and influence are safeguarded for a small economic elite.
This inequality most notably manifests itself within the professions. With 71 per cent of senior judges, 50 per cent of Lords, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, and 33 per cent of MPs having attended private schools, almost all areas of public life are dominated by the 7 per cent of Britons who have attended fee-paying institutions.
When the top public positions in a society are taken by a privileged elite, it is impossible to ensure that that society is run for the benefit of all members and not just for those in its upper echelons.
Of course, the cause of this issue is multi-faceted, but institutions such as Durham have deep rooted problems that must be addressed.
Durham’s image problem clearly plays a role in continuing this inequality.
The University has been more famed for its ‘toffish’, public school reputation in recent years as opposed to its academic excellence, continually propagated by events like last year’s Champagne Society ball scandal.
This acts to put off high achievers from the state sector and attracts a certain type from private schools who wish to continue to live in a public school bubble.
In addition to this, accommodation fees of £7,000-plus mean many simply cannot afford to study in Durham without significant support from their parents or part time work.
If the powers that be at the University are serious about improving the numbers of working class students, which I am not certain they are, it is vital the high cost of maintenance at Durham is addressed.
However, this problem is not Durham’s alone and for real change to occur there needs to be a concerted effort from both schools and universities. Universities should expand their ‘contextual offer’ programme to ensure more working class pupils gain places. While many are uncomfortable with the idea of positive discrimination it is a policy that makes sense for universities.
According to research, state school pupils with similar grades to pupils from private institutions are more likely to achieve 2:1s or firsts at degree level. Therefore, ensuring that state school pupils achieve places at our top universities will improve academic standards at these institutions.
In addition, schools need to provide more guidance and encouragement for high achieving pupils. According to the Sutton Trust, four in ten teachers ‘rarely or never’ advise academically-gifted pupils to apply to Oxford or Cambridge.
The suggestion here is if high achieving state pupils receive better informed guidance from teachers they are more likely to apply to the top institutions.
Whilst in recent years, great progress has been made in making sure Britain’s top universities are more representative of the society they serve, it seems Durham is still stuck in the past. For real progress to be made, elite universities, along with the government and school heads, need to make a concerted effort to improve the ratio of state-educated students. However, I fear the desire is non-existent from those who run the University.
Photograph by barnzy via flickr and creative commons