According to Bahram Bekhradnia, director general of the Higher Education Policy Institute, prestigious universities in the UK remain “as elitist as ever.” He explains that the ratio of poorer to wealthier students attending top universities hasn’t changed in the last fifteen years. He goes on to argue that such universities should attempt to be more like their American counterparts, saying, “In the USA the top universities explicitly engage in social engineering and are clear that they seek to represent wider society as far as possible in their student population.” Dr. Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group (of which the University of Glasgow is a member), disagrees, claiming that, in fact, prestigious UK universities are even less elitist than their US counterparts.
What Mr. Bekhradnia and Dr. Piatt agree on, however, is that “Posh students go to posh universities because they do better at school and less posh students to less posh universities because they do less well at school.”
So why do wealthier students apparently “do better” in school and on their exams? The answer, simply, is that it’s difficult to care about learning biology when you have to work to help support your family or have to worry about where your next meal comes from. But that answer can be patronising to the poorer people who still “do well.” There have also been some accusations, at least in the US, of the wording of exam questions having a regional and class bias. That’s definitely a line of inquiry worth pursuing, but it doesn’t entirely account for a gap in exam scores.
Then, of course, there is the ability of wealthy parents to send their children to private schools. “Over half of all Advanced Highers, Highers, Standard Grades, and Scottish Baccalaureates sat by pupils in the independent sector [in 2012] were awarded grade A,” says John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools. This certainly supports Mr. Bekhradnia’s argument about “posh students.” This sort of exam score is more or less essential to being admitted to the top universities—Cambridge, for example, states that “Offers will usually require AAA at Advanced Higher Grade,” and “The typical conditional A Level offer for 2014 entry will be A*AA”—and while that’s all fine and dandy for private school students, the percentage of S4 students who went on to pass three or more highers in S5 in 2011 was around 26%. That is to say that, presumably, less than a quarter of the Scottish student population in 2012 passed three or more Advanced Highers, to say nothing of gaining the three A grades required by “posh universities” like Cambridge.
So what is to be done if less wealthy students (indeed, the student population in general) aren’t quite getting the exam results the top universities want? Attempt to change the statistics? Certainly that is a long-term answer, but it doesn’t address the issue of current students not having the exam results universities want. Instead, perhaps universities should try to look at other factors when admitting students. And they do, somewhat. UCAS has an essay portion, you need a reference, and some universities will even interview their students. But the seemingly heavy weight given to exam results means that not just poor, but not-wealthy students will have less of a chance of being admitted to these universities.
Addressing the US/UK comparison, universities in the US—prestigious ones included—claim to not have a hard cut-off for exam results. Then again, UK universities don’t exactly claim that they do. But the difference between Harvard and Cambridge is that while Cambridge’s website provides a score on the page, Harvard won’t even put an average SAT score on the page. As to looking beyond exam scores, universities in the US do seem to look at more factors than the UK universities to which I applied; your grades in high school classes are important, and they sure do love to see “extra-curricular activities” (sports teams, school clubs, volunteering, etc.). All that being said, I’d be lying if I told you that US universities are amazingly economically diverse, especially at schools that charge you $40,000 a year for tuition.
And really, “posh universities” should want economic diversity as much as any other type. In the same way that a mix of different cultures, genders, and ages improves the learning and living experience at university, a mix of poorer and wealthier people makes a student walk away from their time at university a smarter, well-rounded human being.
Perhaps if the public officials and authority figures educated at prestigious institutions interact with a wider range of people during their university experience, there will be fewer complaints of them being “out-of-touch,” on both sides of the pond.