A UCAS report published earlier this month broke down university admissions in terms of ethnicity, gender and social disadvantage, as measured by those receiving free school meals. It revealed that a higher number of pupils from both advantaged and disadvantaged cohorts are going to university. Moreover, the percentage of those from less wealthy backgrounds has been increasing steadily over the past decade. So, if the expansion of access to higher education is your main aim, as it has been for most politicians and educational professionals for many years, it should have been a happy day. Apparently not.
The headlines focused on another finding in the report: the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students attending university is widening. Though attendance is increasing in both cohorts, it is increasing five times faster for wealthier students. And, before you could so much as blink, the University of Bristol was falling over itself to prove its commitment to closing the gap. How is Bristol proposing to do this? By lowering entry requirements for pupils from a sample of Bristol state schools. Five pupils from each school in the area will receive offers two grades lower than is standard. It is only fair, the argument goes, to reward the unrecognised talent of some state-school pupils, who, for reasons beyond their control, fail to get the grades.
Bristol pro vice-chancellor Judith Squires, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said that, as these pupils would still be disadvantaged at university, they would need extra support. This, she said, would take the form of help with academic work, as well as extra-curricular activities and visits to bring their ‘cultural capital’ closer to that of their wealthier peers. In other words, the university doesn’t only expect less from disadvantaged students in terms of attainment, it plans to treat them like children in need of socialising. Previously, university was a place where students were encouraged to break away, experiment and find their own way. It was a path to adulthood. Now, students – and particularly poor students – are treated to a raft of therapeutic ‘support’ measures.