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Widening Access: A modest proposal

August 5, 2017

The University of Edinburgh recently announced that it would, for the first time,  be offering some places through clearing which would be reserved for students from Scotland from the most disadvantaged areas.  It’s an inventive response to the difficulty the university faces (I’m assuming) in getting more applicants from these parts of Scotland.

It made me think about what puts people off applying to certain universities, and something I’ve heard just often enough to think it’s worth some attention.  We need to talk about open days.

I think of the relative who visited St Andrews in the 1970s and felt so at odds with who they encountered that they didn’t go (to university at all, in the end). The friend who also went to a St Andrews open day (in the 1980s this time) and had the same reaction, spending four very happy years instead at Strathclyde.  Other much more recent anecdotes, from friends and Twitter contacts, about Edinburgh and (less often but also) Glasgow.  It seems possible that the experience of visiting certain universities as a potential applicant on a general open day can be specifically off-putting.

I have been around and about George Square in Edinburgh over a couple of recent open days, seeing young people with their parents. Poor things, is my immediate reaction: the choice seems so enormous, so life-determining. I’m happy never to face that again.   But I also notice the signs of social class. This is not a very mixed crowd.

There’s some relevant personal history here, too. In 1984, I went to an open day at Oxford. No-one else from my school, an average sort of local comprehensive,  was interested, so I did the 5-hour-each-way train trip solo, arriving blurry from an early start in a strange city much bigger than the place I lived, its station on the edge of the centre, pre-Google maps and smart phones. Two colleges were being open that day. At the first, very old and distinguished, I arrived late and stressed: the benches in the lovely medieval dining hall were already full. It felt as though most people there had come in gangs, buses even, from the big public schools of southern England. With their teachers. I did the tour that followed the welcome speech, half of which I’d missed, but it was agony. I felt like a gatecrasher the whole time, awkward and scruffy and excluded. Then I bolted for the other college on my list, a 1970’s concrete thing on the fringes. I remember it was raining hard.  They were surprised to be reminded it was still their open day, but dug me out a friendly undergraduate who wandered me round, and dropped in on a couple of friends, who made me a coffee, cracked jokes and were brilliantly normal. My day improved.  Maybe Oxford might be alright.

Reader, here’s my confession. Both my parents went to Oxford. It’s where they met and they remembered it with huge affection.  Yes, they were first generation university students and entirely dependent on scholarships.  But  my father was a university professor. He’d been to one of those big public schools (more scholarships). The very old college was his old college.  But that open day nearly torpedoed my application to the entire university, because I felt so out of place among the other potential applicants I met there. It certainly took college number one off my list.  And yet I was someone whose family background should have put me at the top end of the feeling-entitled-to-be-there scale. So if I felt like that, I wonder where that leaves so many others.

So here’s my modest proposal.  People from fee-paying schools should be contained in a separate open day. That’s it.  Everyone else should be able to come on the other days without being confronted with that extraordinary, overwhelming  wall of outward confidence and upper-middle-classness which can be so daunting and alienating, particularly when you meet it for the first time.  Now anxious parents are involved, it must surely, if anything, be worse.

I don’t mean here that there should be special open days for “access students”, but for once applying the thinking of quotas etc to the other end of the spectrum: putting the “difference” badge on someone else for a change.  Not because I have anything against any of these young people individually, but because en masse they are so bloody daunting. They can’t help it. They may not even like it. I know now that cultivating that outward air of self-possession is a fundamental part of what private schools do, and that it can conceal plenty of insecurity and confusion.  But at 17 that wasn’t at all obvious.

Indeed this could be taken a step further.  Some state schools are also conveyor belts to the ancients; maybe they should be separated out too.  The criterion could be schools which have sent more than x% of their leavers to ancient or Russell Group universities.

Most access initiatives target the people identified as disadvantaged. We remain less comfortable curtailing the effects of privilege.  This proposal indeed barely does that: these young people still get their open day.  I suspect it would be regarded as an unacceptable, even so: however radical we say we are willing to be, acknowledging the negative effects of advantage as well as disadvantage remains alien to most policy-making and practice.



My mother only made it to university in 1947 because of the new system of scholarships introduced at the end of the second world war. I am literally a product of the post war student funding settlement.





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