Additional funding should be awarded to universities for each poorer student they accept, suggests a recently published controversial report.

Alan Milburn, the government’s social mobility adviser, is aiming to widen university participation from across the socioeconomic spectrum, recommending a reform of university funding and the tailoring of grade offers to a student’s background. He hopes that a financial incentive will encourage institutions to look beyond the grades achieved by more disadvantaged students.

The former Labour cabinet minister spoke of institutions failing to recognise “potential and aptitude in who they admit to university”, this being the result of an admissions process strongly determined by academic achievement. Universities should instead strive to consider contextual data when reviewing applications from worse-off students, perhaps giving leeway over grade offers. Milburn points to evidence that “state school students, once they get into universities, even if they have lower grades than privately educated kids, do better in their degrees.”

Milburn’s proposals have already met with criticism, among the critics Tory MP’s and private schools, who believe that middle-class children will unfairly lose out on university places despite satisfactory academic attainment. Besides, says Janhvi Dave, a Nottingham student, more deprived factions of society should be targeted “from a younger age so that they have the same quality of education” as more privileged students. Consistent and high quality teaching across the board would reduce the need to consult ‘contextual data’ she observed.

Speaking to Impact, Matthew Styles, Education Officer for the University of Nottingham’s Students’ Union, called for the consideration of external factors influencing social mobility, however. He identifies the narrow focus of outreach in the UK, revealing a need for renewed recruitment efforts by universities. “All too often we focus purely on household income and participation rates in local areas, rather than considering…race, age, and accessibility.” He added “These often unmentioned demographics need to become our targets.”

Despite a large increase in university attendance, the most advantaged 20% of young people are still seven times more likely to attend university than the least advantaged 40%, the report illustrates. The “pool of talent is currently limited because of three gaps,” Milburn explains, “between private and state schools, better off students and worse off ones, and between kids who study key subjects and kids who don’t.” For university to be genuinely “classless”, he goes on to say, institutions must spend a significant sum of money on outreach activities.

Matthew Styles praised the efforts of Nottingham University in attracting a broad range of applicants, saying “At Nottingham, we are very proud to boast a comprehensive package of outreach, retention and funding for those in need.” He does however admit that “there is more work to be done.”

Talia Samuelson

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