Under Labour, OFFA failed to get the more selective universities to open their doors wider. So I am calling on the Office for Fair Access to go further and not leave it to universities to decide how much work they do in our schools to encourage more promising but disadvantaged people to apply.
With fees going up to at least £6,000 after ministers followed the recommendations of Labour’s Browne Review, we need tough action to break down the barriers that are stopping so many of our young from going to a top university.
The Russell Group of prestigious universities is wrong to say that progress has been poor because the disadvantaged often do not get good enough grades. Yes, schools must do more to ensure that no child is left behind early on – something the new Pupil Premium will help tackle. But many pupils from low-income backgrounds already get the necessary grades for the elite universities but are not going.
If just a handful of top universities upped their game and attracted these good candidates, it would make a huge difference. If York, Durham, Newcastle, Sheffield and Warwick attracted the same proportion of students on free school meals getting the best possible grades, over 500 more disadvantaged young people would get the chance to better their lot.
We cannot let universities like these off the hook by not giving real teeth to the enforcement of their agreements on improving access. If they fail to widen access, they should be fined. All the money should be used to expand the Government’s new and welcome National Scholarship Programme.