Education News Weekly – November 2nd, 2017
Student loan reforms, Brexit tension and further Oxbridge admissions drama…
More than 100 MPs – many of whom represent parts of the country that are under-represented at Oxbridge – have written to the heads of Oxford and Cambridge University calling for urgent reforms after data revealed a “social apartheid” in student admissions. The letter, organised by Labour MP David Lammy, criticises the institutions for continuing to draw the “overwhelming majority” of their students from a “small minority in terms of both geography and socio-economic background”. It calls on Oxbridge to “take the initiative” in “reaching out [directly] to parts of our society and our country that are under-represented”.
The letter states: “Much more work is required to find the most talented students who may be from disadvantaged backgrounds, lack the confidence or support networks to apply to Oxbridge or live in parts of the country and attend schools that do not traditionally send many students to Oxbridge.
“We call on you to take the initiative in directly contacting talented and straight A students, whether following GCSE, AS Level or A Level results, and in reaching out to parts of our society and our country that are under-represented.”
Data for the number of black students admitted to Oxford colleges “does not tell the whole story”, the university’s African and Caribbean society has said – echoing Cambridge counterparts (INSERT NEWS LINK). It comes after figures obtained by David Lammy MP found populations at Oxford and Cambridge were heavily made up of white, well-off students. But Oxford’s African and Caribbean Society has warned reducing the issue to “political soundbites” can do harm.
In a statement issued by the student-run group on Twitter, the society said the data had revealed “significant issues of institutionalised cultural and economic bias at Oxford”. But it added that simplifying the problem risked obscuring its depth and could harm progress which has been made in changing perceptions. Oxford was a “microcosm” of the “deep structural issues” in the British educational system, the society said, and the data did not reflect that a “disproportionate” number of black students attend schools in low-income areas.
“The problem does not start at Oxford, our efforts to address it cannot stop at Oxford,” the statement added.
Check out Minerva’s blog last week about the racial, ethnic and geographical unfairness engendered in the university application process.
While at the same time, a leading education trust has suggested that for elite universities to even out the social divide, they should drop entry requirements by two grades for poorer students. Currently, more offers are made to pupils from Eton than to students on free school meals across the country.
The Sutton Trust study, led by academics at the universities of Durham and Warwick, looked at 30 of the UK’s most selective universities. It found that use of contextual admissions would result in a “substantial hike” in the number of students who are eligible for free school meals going to top universities.
Currently only 1,500 young people eligible for free school meals are admitted to the 30 most selective universities each year – a tiny fraction of the total intake. That could rise to 2,250 if entry requirements are lowered.
Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris “should probably not have sent” a letter to universities asking for details of Brexit courses, Universities minister Jo Johnson said has said.
He said the MP was “pursuing inquiries of his own which may, in time, lead to a book on these questions.” He continued: “I am sure Chris is regretting this very much. The critical thing is that the government is absolutely committed to academic freedom and to freedom of speech in our universities. Heaton-Harris, a member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs, had been accused of a ‘sinister’ attempt to censor academic freedom, after he wrote to universities asking for the names of professors teaching Brexit-related courses and details of their syllabuses.
The command that Britain’s public schools hold over the highest offices in the country has “diminished significantly” over time, academics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) have found. But don’t get too excited – alumni of the Clarendon Schools (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul’s, Westminster, and Winchester College) are still 94 times more likely to reach the British elite (defined here as entrants in Who’s Who, ‘the leading biographical dictionary of “noteworthy and influential” people in the UK’), than are those who attended any other school. Which somehow makes them currently less powerful than they were in the past.
Explanations given for this modest progress include the rise of women in the workplace, the wane of military and religious elites in British society and the gradual effect far-reaching educational reforms, the researchers said.
Calls for black and ethnic minority writers to become a compulsory feature of English courses at the University of Cambridge have been made under new plans to “decolonise” the curriculum. This follows an open letter titled “Decolonising the English Faculty” that was signed by more than 100 students, and written by the student union’s women’s officer, Lola Olufemi. The letter argues that the current syllabus bolsters systemic racism: “For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others,” she wrote.
“What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism.” Under the proposals discussed by the English Faculty’s Teaching Forum, which act only as recommendations, academic staff will start “actively seeking to ensure the presence of BME [Black and Minority Ethnicity] tests and topics on lecture lists”.
Reading lists would be diversified under the plans, with professors being encouraged to share BME literature suggestions with one another. Some in the university seem resistant to the ideas, but others certainly appear to welcome it.
Scrapping interest on student loans and extending the time limit on paying it back could help to avoid a future debt crisis, a centre-right think tank says. The UK 2020 report said the measures would “bring down costs” for students and graduates. The UK 2020 report has proposed scrapping all interest on all student loans which they believe would reduce unpaid student debt by an average of 10%. Combining that with pushing back the current 30-year limit on debt repayment would, the report says, increase the number of loans recovered from 25% at present to 80%, benefiting both graduates and taxpayers. Changing payback time limits from 30 to 50 years could also save billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, it claimed, amid news that ministers are reviewing the (currently horrendous and disorganised) student finance system. They said sustainable university funding was a priority: those graduating from university in summer 2017 left with an average debt of £50,000, according to estimates from the Institute for Fiscal Studies – 77% of students will never pay back their full debt, with interest currently charged at an outrageous 6.1% a year..
Graduates travelling across the country for job interviews will be offered free accommodation in London, Manchester and Birmingham, under an initiative from Barclays bank. The scheme is designed to highlight the financial difficulties jobseekers face when applying for roles. Beginning on Monday, 30 October and lasting for a month, Barclays will pay for up to two nights in a studio apartment close to where graduates’ interviews are taking place. The offer applies to interviews with any company, not just Barclays itself.
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.