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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 23:09 GMT 00:09 UK
'Elitist' system deters students
University of Birmingham
Birmingham took part in the study

University admissions departments are dominated by an elitist way of working which stops working class students from getting in, a study has found.

The system reinforces a feeling among students from lower social groups - and who have not followed a traditional A-level route - that higher education is "not for us".

The backdrop to the study is a drive by the government to get more students, especially from working class backgrounds, into higher education.

But new official statistics showed a drop in the number of 16 year olds staying on in education or training in England.

Shortage of students

In a two-year study, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) worked with the University of Birmingham; the University of Central Lancashire; Queen Mary, University of London; and York St John College.

The model which served the elitist system of the past continues to drive current admissions practice

The aims of their Paving the Way project were to work with selected groups who are under-represented in each institution.

It was hoped this would identify good practice that could be used to widen participation in higher education nationally.

One of the problems the study faced at the outset was simply recruiting enough students from the target groups to take part.

The report on the project says this suggested they were also under-represented in Level 3 studies - A-levels or their equivalents.

Early decision

One finding was that the key decision whether to stay on in education had been made by most students by the time they were 14 years old.

If students from lower socio-economic groups were on A-level courses they generally saw higher education as a natural progression.

But students on vocational programmes beyond the age of 16 left the decision to apply to universities until much later.

A recent study for The Sutton Trust, which aims to help poorer children receive a good education, suggested that only 11% of the 11 to 16 year olds questioned thought they would not go to university.

But a development that has implications for the drive to widen university participation is the unpublicised revelation this week of a drop in the numbers staying on beyond the age of compulsory education.

Statistics produced by the National Statistics office show that the proportion of 16 year olds in education and training at the end of 2001 was estimated at 86.5% - down from 86.6% at the end of 2000 and from 88% a decade ago.

This is in spite of the government's multi-million pound Don't Quit Now campaign.


The Ucas Paving the Way report said support of family and friends was a strong factor in a young person's decision to go to university.

This obviously affects those from what are known as "non-traditional" backgrounds - that is, where there is no family tradition of going to university.

"There was a perception that those from the lower socio-economic groups did not go on to HE [higher education]," the report said.

And there was little understanding of the nature of higher education or of the workload involved.

This bears out other studies, such as "outreach" projects where university students talk to teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds, which find that the youngsters presume university is more or less like school.

Finance continued to be a worry. And "mature students felt excluded and unwanted".


Students with qualifications other than A-levels had difficulty in relating them to specified entry requirements - and perceived themselves as being at a disadvantage.

There is an institutional elitism

Education minister Margaret Hodge
Universities are supposed to be operating a new system which awards points to qualifications of all sorts, including the new Key Skills. That is the theory.

On admissions, the report said: "The model which served the elitist HE system of the past continues to drive current admissions practice".

"The fairness and professionalism of admissions practice was questioned in the light of experience by students in the survey."

At a conference this week, the Higher Education Minister, Margaret Hodge, said: "There is an institutional elitism which pervades the higher education system."

She said she wanted "an intellectual elite not a social elite, which is what we have now".

The Ucas report said students also felt they needed better preparation for entering higher education - some finding it "particularly painful".

And there was too little support for the students involved in the project once they had embarked upon their university studies, with some experiencing "social isolation".

Out of touch

Among the report's observations is one that admissions departments are under-resourced.

"Ensuring a more equitable and sensitive admissions practice that can respond to applicant diversity and support widening participation is a complex and time-consuming task," the report said.

"Admissions tutors were found to be unfamiliar with the changing 16-19 curriculum".

The statistics on staying on rates highlight the urgency of the need for change.

The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, this week pointed out that the UK had a lower staying-on rate than many of its competitors.

The very language is a symptom: In the USA, for example, someone who left school before 18 would be described as "dropping out", whereas in the UK those who remain after 16 are "staying on".

The 71.2% of 16 year olds in full-time education consisted of some 38% studying for A and AS-levels, 7.5% for Advanced GNVQs or Vocational A-levels, and 4.6% for Level 3 NVQs and equivalent vocational qualifications.

Another 7.6% were studying for Intermediate and Foundation GNVQs, 2.5% for GCSEs, and 10.5% for NVQ at Levels 1 and 2 and other qualifications.

Some 36.7% were studying full-time in further or higher education colleges, 28.3% in maintained schools and 6.1% in independent schools, while 7.3% were part-time.

See also:

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