It has recently been announced that university applicants are to be asked to indicate whether their parents or guardians have had a university education on the University and colleges’ admissions (Ucas) form. Applicants are soon to be asked to indicate not just the occupation of the parent who brings home the greatest income, but also whether their parents themselves went through higher education.
This comes as part of a government drive to see a greater number of working class students attend university. While this may be in the pursuit of the admirable cause of giving a greater number of poorer students the choice of attending university, it may only serve to deter middle-class applicants from applying.
Such a clause will surely only increase the widespread speculation that government interference in the admissions process is in fact a device for social engineering and postcode lottery tactics, despite the fact that a Ucas spokesman has claimed the information is to be used only for “statistical purposes” and not in the allocation of places.
The Government has already spent an estimated £350 million in campaigning to increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds, although evidence from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that the middle classes still dominate. It has been said that “equal examination grades do not necessarily represent equal potential”, because factors such as social background afffect pupils’ performance.
There is indeed a very valid concern for ensuring consistency in the quality of pre-university education across the board, as differences between state and independent schools may affect the academic achievement of some students.. Yet to accept or reject students on this assumption is not only unjust to high-achieving middle class students, it is also highly patronising to those students accepted because of background rather than merit.
What is even more shocking, however, is that universities will have no way of proving whether this personal information is true, rendering this whole exercise pointless. Applicants are therefore likely to alter information tactically.
The most obvious barrier against equality and fairness in university admissions is, of course, the trebling of the cost of university education this year. There has already been a 4.5% drop in applications across the board, with students from all backgrounds being deterred by the prospect of a high level of graduate debt.
Some statistics even suggest that there has been a particular fall in applications from middle-class students who failed to qualify for new grants because they are on the cusp of the cut-off point, or because their parents’ income is more than £30,000 per annum.
Students are increasingly looking abroad to countries like the USA to satisfy their higher education needs. American institutions like Princeton have already seen an increase of 6% in applications from British students.
More worrying, however, is the prospect that by the end of the decade the cap on tuition fees is due to be lifted and universities are expected to increase top-up and tuition fees dramatically to meet their high-funding demands. Given the current trend, it is likely that this will be accompanied by a general decrease in applications and in particular applications from not only low-income group students, but lower-middle class pupils too.
The solution is perhaps to leave the cap on what could easily become a skyrocketing level of tuition fees and a plummeting level of students.