Calls for more contextual offers are a step in the right direction for universities however cuts to state schools need to be stopped.
Listening to radio 4 yesterday morning, I heard a privately educated girl, in the process of applying for university, commenting on contextual offers. Contextual offers are those that take into account applicant’s socioeconomic status and personal challenges when considering their achievements. In Lehmans terms, it is when universities lower their entry requirements for individuals from underprivileged backgrounds.
The girl said that she understood why they existed but felt they were unfair because she has “worked just as hard as them”.
Ignoring the argument that in many cases the underprivileged student has probably worked a lot harder, trying to get as much study time in whilst taking care of disabled parents and working part-time, not for their application but because they need the money for food, she appears to have missed the point.
It’s not about how hard they’ve worked. Like she said, they have allegedly worked just as hard as her, but the point is they don’t have the resources that she does. If you put Lewis Hamilton in a Ferrari and then in a Sauber, the same driver gets significantly different lap times. In the same way, teenagers from less privileged backgrounds without access to the same academic resources need to have lower expectations when measuring success. They can’t be expected to get straight A*s in the same way someone from a private school can.
That’s not to say that people from private schools don’t have their own challenges to overcome, and that they don’t work incredibly hard in order to achieve their success, but they have to understand that due to the fact they have structures in place to help them succeed, they have to be judged more harshly by universities.
For example, a student who has cared for a parent during studies and achieved an A and two Bs may demonstrate more potential than a privately educated student with 3 As, and that is what contextual offers are all about, trying to find students with potential but who have suffered difficulties that have impacted their final grades.
Bristol University found contextual offers to be a success, with students benefitting from them going on to outperform their more privileged counterparts. Currently, Bristol offers two grades lower for contextual offers, but such has been the success they are now considering lowering that to four.
When it has recently emerged that Oxbridge has become less diverse, it is at best ignorant to complain about lower entry rates for underprivileged students, and I welcome the calls from Sutton Trust that contextual offers should become central to the admissions process. However, this treats a symptom, what are we doing about the cause?
The underlying problem is at the core of our society; how can we stop underprivileged students needing contextual offers? Students from state schools tend to outperform their more privileged classmates at university, state schooled students are clearly bright enough to get A*s given the opportunity, so why aren’t they?
More needs to be done by the government to ensure state schools are providing adequate opportunity for their students to achieve the highest grades, and that starts with reversing schooling cuts. £2.8Bn of cuts since 2015 is not conducive to improved education standards. While I don’t believe you can solve the problem by simply throwing money at it, schools do not have the resources they need to succeed.
I don’t think there will ever be a time when we eradicate inequality in our education system, there will always be better schools and worse schools, there will always be rich people who can afford better supplies and tutors, however, more can be done to reduce inequality, and slashing budgets is no way to do it.
The government should be concerned by David Lammy’s findings that Oxbridge is becoming less diverse and should support Sutton Trust’s calls for universities to embrace contextual offers. However, universities are not the only ones who should be taking things in context, the government should see these findings in the context of their own policies which cripple state schools, and do nothing to provide a platform for underprivileged students to succeed.