Alan Milburn calls for background checks on university students

Thanks to the Telegraph online for this one…

Universities should assess the social background of each student during the   admissions process to break the middle-class stranglehold on places,   according to the Government’s social mobility tsar.

Alan Milburn said it should be the “norm not the exception” to take account of   applicants’ family and school history to create a more balanced student   body.

He said teenagers from poor backgrounds attending low-achieving schools “had   to work harder to get decent A-levels” than similar pupils brought up by   “well-off parents”.

Some universities – particularly the most selective institutions – already   carry out personal checks on candidates.

The data is often used to make lower–grade offers to teenagers from   poor–performing comprehensives or fast–track deprived candidates into   interviews.

But Mr Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister, said this data should be   put to more routine use because A-levels results alone are “not fool-proof   in predicting future performance” on degree courses.

The comments come just months before he publishes a series of three reports   for the Coalition on social mobility and child poverty.

One – due in mid-June – will focus on fair access to higher education and is   expected to urge universities to take more account of applicants’   backgrounds as part of selection procedures.

But it is likely to provoke anger among many senior Conservatives who claim   that the approach excuses poor performance at schools in deprived areas.

It follows controversy over the appointment of Prof Les Ebdon as the   Government’s new director of fair access, after he attacked top universities   that fail to take their share of disadvantaged students.

But speaking to the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s quarterly   journal, Mr Milburn said: “It is time, in my view, that the use of data that   takes account of the educational and social context of pupils’ achievement   becomes the norm, not the exception, across the country.

“This, I know, is controversial terrain. But without concerted action here, I   simply do not believe we will make progress in ensuring access to university   is genuinely open to the widest possible range of students.”

Universities can currently use “contextual data” covering candidates’   ethnicity, postcode, family income and level of parental education during   the admissions process. They can also take account of average pupil   performance at their school.

A study last year found that around four-in-10 universities access this data,   with around a fifth using it to admit poor students on lower A-level grades   than other candidates.

Mr Milburn said that universities “would like to do more of this sort of thing   but are fearful of the consequences”.

“Some of the top universities worry about their standing in international   league tables if they are seen to soften entry requirements,” he said.

“Many others are simply afraid of being charged with social engineering or   positive discrimination.”

He added: “Most people would accept that a youngster with no family history of   going to university, from a disadvantaged area, attending a low-achieving   school, has had to work harder to get decent A-levels than a similar   youngster who has attended a top school, having been brought up by well-off   parents who know the university system like the back of their hands.”

But the comments were criticised by academics.

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment   Research at Buckingham University, said: “Politicians should not be meddling   with university admissions – they should be putting their energies into   creating an excellent and equitable schools’ system for everyone.

“Universities, like Premier League football teams, should be allowed to select   the best possible talent among those available to them.”

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