Private schools say rich students could be discriminated against as unis widen access

Working class students can have a little access, as a treat

The boss of a group of expensive private schools has said rich students could be discriminated against as universities make efforts to let in more disadvantaged students.

New Office for Students plans to halve the access gap at top universities in the next five years, with pupils from richer areas are currently six times more likely to get places at top universities.

Strikingly, 15 students from the most well-off areas get into Oxford for every student from the most disadvantaged areas.

Mike Buchanan, head of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) group of private schools, said “care is needed in starting actively to discriminate against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into.”

Universities are in danger of “robbing some students of a future to award it to others”, says Buchanan. Under OfS targets, by 2025 universities would take four students from rich backgrounds for every student from a disadvantaged background. For Oxford, the aim is to reduce the 15:1 gap to 8:1.

Buchanan argues contextual admissions shouldn’t be based on school type, however also that top private schools provide students with “exceptional results and soft skills” which “mean that our students will continue to get the university places they wish for”.

Institutions should look at increasing the number of overall places, says Buchanan. However, Chris Millward of the OfS warns that with Oxbridge showing no signs of expanding, some students could be squeezed out.

“We expect providers to work towards these targets because they tackle two urgent priorities: the need to open up all of our universities to people from those communities where progress into higher education is lowest, and to ensure that every student has the same chance to succeed once they get there,” said Millward.

“At current rates of progress, we could hope to see equal access to our most selective universities for young people – regardless of where they grow up – within 20 years,” said Millward, warning this would require “significant work”.

James Turner, head of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, welcomed the plans, but added: “there are still significant regional disparities in who gets into the most selective universities. More must be done to tackle these geographical divides, so it is great to see universities setting out ambitious plans to halve the gap between the poorest and wealthiest areas within five years.”

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