Are Universities Fundamentally Elitist?

It is easy to argue that the UK, as a whole, is fundamentally elitist. The economy’s top professions are dominated by Oxbridge graduates and privately-educated individuals. But does this elitism originate in British universities?

There has been speculation that private school applicants are favoured by the UK’s elite institutions. The Guardian obtained statistics from the University of Oxford, showing that even where students had top grades of three A*s or more, private school students were 9% more likely to be accepted.

‘The bottom line is we want to give places to the pupils with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed.’

Isn’t this to be expected? One could argue that this discrepancy in achievement between private and state school students justifies the high cost of private education. However, contradicting the figures showing a statistical bias towards the high-achieving and privately-educated, universities are supposed to use ‘contextual data’ when offering course places. Institutions are supposed to show awareness of applicants’ educational backgrounds and, in turn, offer lower grade requirements to state school candidates. Some may take the view that this is not the case, and that instead, Oxbridge snobbery could account for the 9% difference.

Is the Russell Group also biased? Doctor Wendy Piatt, the Group’s Director General, told The Telegraph that ‘The bottom line is we want to give places to the pupils with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed.’ This leads to the question: is  the selection process biased, or are  privately-educated students just better prepared overall?

Here at Nottingham, 69.6% of students are from state schools, compared to 54.7% and 59.3% at Oxford and Cambridge respectively. However, these figures are not nearly representative of the numbers of state-educated students in England: 1 in 100 state school students go on to study at Oxbridge, compared to 1 in 20 from private schools.

More notable are the percentages of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at universities: 3.7% at Cambridge and 2.7% at Oxford. This doesn’t mean that these universities aren’t admitting disadvantaged students for that reason alone; clearly they are admitting them, despite doing so in lower numbers. The key factor is these students’ ‘disadvantage’: they are not able to compete with students from better socioeconomic backgrounds who have had the enormous advantages of a better education and families with high incomes.

It is not the role of universities to compensate for inequities and inequalities in state education.

I have never attended a private or grammar school and I am not an Oxbridge student. However, I find the ‘elitist’ accusations to be somewhat stereotypical. Private school education is, and is supposed to be, of superior quality; hence its cost. The amount of effort that private school students have to put into their studies is immense, so I believe that they are entirely deserving of their resultant university destinations. I think that institutions of higher education are responsible for further enhancing the education of students who have the best aptitude to thrive at university. State school students work hard too but private school (and grammar school) students have a far larger workload and, I would imagine, a lot more pressure. It is not the role of universities to compensate for inequities and inequalities in state education. Making it easier for state school students to get into university could mean lowering standards for candidates: this would result in education being downgraded rather than improved overall by enhancing state school education.

I attended a state school with a reputation for its high performance. My own experience was that a large number of my fellow Sixth Formers went on to study at Russell Group universities, with several attending Oxbridge. To estimate the proportion of my peers who went to Oxbridge, I’d probably guess that around 1 in 40 were successful. So, even at an high-achieving (non-grammar) state school, the likelihood of being considered Oxbridge material is still a lot lower.

However, even though my school’s success rate was lower than that of private schools’, it is roughly above the average figure for the country’s state schools. This seems to support the view that universities are simply searching for the highest performers with impressive profiles, rather than simply where they went to school, i.e. the quality of the education is the key factor.

It is clear that private school students are more specifically molded to meet the criteria of universities and top careers. If universities were fundamentally elitist, then they might only accept private school students. State schools need to do better to improve the educations of people from lesser and, particularly, disadvantaged backgrounds who do not have the same financial and parental advantages. If elitism means seeking out the best students; then yes, many universities are deserving of this label.

Cara Louise McEvoy

Image by Gillman and Soame

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