The Independent View: A note to the Liberal Democrats on university access and information

A child’s fate is often decided very early on in its development. That is why government intervention must happen early. Liberal coalition policies such as parenting classes and the pupil premium will help us move away from what Nick Clegg calls a “closed society” where people’s circumstances at birth haunt them for the rest of their life.

The most effective intervention happens before the age of 11, but this mustn’t be where it ends. A lack of decent careers advice and university guidance at some secondary state schools means that many talented pupils are failing to meet their potential.

Just as worrying are signs that those who do meet their potential – i.e. get top A-level grades – are poorly placed to make good decisions. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), 9,000 pupils in 2009/10 achieved grades of AAB or above, but attended universities where less than 10% of students achieved such grades.

This doesn’t tell us everything. Some of these students will have applied to specialist courses that are offered only at a small number of places. But many more of them may simply have been unaware that the experience and benefits of going to university differs greatly from one institution to the next.

The government is already looking at ways to make information on universities more widely available. From September 2012, English institutions will be required to place standard sets of information known as KIS (Key Information Sets) on their websites to help applicants “find quickly and compare easily, the headline items which students consider most important”.

While we welcome this development, we fear that the KIS won’t be enough to get people interested, or be looked at by those who need information the most. These concerns are addressed in a new CentreForum report ‘Informed decisions: tackling information inequalities in higher education’.

Our proposals include a national awareness campaign, cash incentives for schools that are successful in getting pupils to look at the KIS, and personalised information on fee, maintenance loan and grant eligibility on child tax credit statements (QR codes and the like).

We urge the government’s access to education advocate Simon Hughes to take a look at these proposals. The Liberal Democrats took a big hit over tuition fees and have so far struggled to explain the merits of the new system. An information awareness campaign, which among other things tells people that no one pays any upfront fees, is surely an attractive proposition?

Gill Wyness is an education researcher at CentreForum, the liberal think tank, and LSE. Tom Frostick is head of press and communications at CentreForum.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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  • Nobody pays up front fees, but if you do your education will cost you less in the longterm, ie it helps to be rich.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Apr '12 - 3:12pm

    All excellent stuff. Much better than the discrimination against middle class children which seems to be the government’s preffered option.

  • Richard Dean 5th Apr '12 - 12:31am

    @Rebecca. I can understand why students need to interview universities – looking around gives a reasonable idea of what university life will be like at different places – but why do universities need to interview students? I can’t imagine they get any relevant information at all.

  • Tom Frostick 5th Apr '12 - 12:16pm

    It’s important to give everyone the best possible chance of winning a place at their university of choice (whether Oxbridge or elsewhere). Most important is early intervention…the #1 reason disadvantaged students are not going to university in greater numbers is that too few are achieving the exam results they need to apply.

  • Richard Dean 5th Apr '12 - 8:43pm

    @Rebecca. I don’t think they are trying to work out tutiorial performance, and I don’t think they could work it out anyway. Things sem to have changed since I went to Cambridge, experienced an unmemorable interview, attended few tutorials, and came joint first in the third year exams in my subject. I think I was scheduled one tutorial every two to four weeks. Even if this has increased, I doubt that tutorials are a substantial part of Oxbridge life.

    I think that the best way of improving people’s interview performance is probably to go to Oxbridge and ask someone what they aim to find out at interviews. Lecturer’s teaching perfoance can vary from appaling to wondeerful, including at Oxbridge, but their career progression depends on their success or otherwise in attracting research funding. Some lecturers might believe they can spot good research student potential at entry level interviews.

  • Richard Dean 6th Apr '12 - 6:40pm

    @Rebecca. I do remember from 20 to 30 years ago that the issue of bias was actively discussed in Cambridge. Everyone seemed to agree things needed to change. Oxbridge retain their place as leading universities primarily through the high quaity of their graduates. It’s how they survive, so it’s in their strong interest to get the most telented entrants. Background is irrelevant, and some Oxbridge acedemics are themselves from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    I do suggest that you might need to look again at how you apporoach the interview training. Some things you should absolutely not do is (a) tell the people you expect to fail that they will fail – this expectation will alter their performance and can be self-fulfilling as a result, and (b) attempt special pleading on grounds of social circumstance – becuase such pleading would demonstrate to the university that the applicant does not understand that talent is key.

    Good luck.

  • Richard Dean 6th Apr '12 - 7:00pm

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