It does seem at times as if the Government is at war with our top universities . The Prime Minister took a swipe at Oxford this week,   taking a leaf out of Gordon Browns book, which is a high risk gambit, particularly as he seems to have got his facts wrong over how many black pupils won places at Oxford  last year.

The Prime Minister claimed it was “disgraceful” that only one black student was admitted to the university last academic year. But Oxford immediately hit back, accusing the Prime Minister who got a first-class degree at the university, of getting his facts wrong and being “highly misleading”. University officials said in a statement the correct figures for 2009/2010 were:

27 black British undergraduates;  14 mixed race undergraduates with black descent; 41 in total, including one black student of Caribbean descent

Responding to Mr Cameron’s criticism, the university said there were 99 black undergraduates in all years at Oxford in 2009/10. With postgraduate students included, this figure rose to 245, a spokeswoman added. The university went on to claim the real issue was  actually attainment in schools, which is correct.

“Oxford is fully committed to admitting the most able students regardless of background,”  she  said.  She continued “Official figures show that for 2009 just 452 black students across the entire country achieved the grades to make a competitive application to Oxford (three As excluding general studies).”Talking of Grades, and given that this Government  is keen for the most disadvantaged  pupils to access the best institutions – in 2008, only 160 students who were eligible for free school meals achieved 3 As nationally – that is out of around 30,000 students nationally who achieved AAA. All of those students gaining triple A  were good, but some were outstanding, and it is the latter group   that elite institutions seek to identify.

Growing numbers of Tory backbenchers are uneasy about  the direction of travel . It would  help of course if Downing Street got  the facts right  but it is  compounded   by the perception that  HE policy is a bit of a dogs dinner. HE  funding is  in disarray and the Treasury is  not clear how it will make up a large funding gap as a majority of universities opt for £9,000 tuition fees. Meanwhile ,Ministers are  putting severe pressure on top universities to admit pupils from the state sector with inferior qualifications  and to take into account their potential.

What looks increasingly likely is that the Government will have to cut back on student places at our best universities.  Not good timing.  In the meantime  David Willetts has been accused by critics, including some Tory backbench MPs, of highly selective use of evidence to support his claims that state pupils with poorer  grades  than  privately educated pupils often  outperform them at University which is used by him to encourage top  universities to  open up access to pupils from poorer backgrounds with less impressive qualifications. For the record, the Russell Group of Universities , which includes most of the top universities,  has since 1997 seen  the proportion of state school students  at  its  member  universities  grow  by 9.0%. This rate of growth exceeds the growth in the proportion of state school students across all UK universities, which was 8.6% in the same period.

In addition the scrapping of the Aim Higher programme will, as an Oxford admissions tutor pointed out recently, damage the outreach initiatives  that are  designed to improve access. Some of these programmes  are  pretty sophisticated, such  as the identification and monitoring of potential university applicants as early as years 8 and 9.

Richard Partington, chairman of Cambridge university’s admissions research working party, repeated his claim, last  week, that there was “no evidence” that students from poor-performing schools admitted to Cambridge with worse A-level grades did as well as their peers. It came as research published by the university revealed raw sixth-form exam grades were “overwhelmingly” the best indicator of likely degree outcomes, irrespective of school type.  Oxbridge are showing signs  of effective  counter-punching.It is hard to fathom how Ministers think that  their tactics will deliver the  outcomes they want.  Better surely to get stakeholders on side particularly as Ministers have limited means of forcing universities to change their  admissions policies.


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