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Failing to understand

“Top universities are failing poor students”, said the Times headline. I was concerned. What exactly were the top universities doing to cause them to fail in their obligations to the poor students? If I had read that the universities were failing to process student loan applications in a timely manner I would have been distressed. A student finance screw-up is no joke if the family does not have much spare in the bank. If I had read that universities were disadvantaging poorer students by requiring that they pay for ostensibly optional but practically compulsory extras in order to complete their courses I would have been outraged. If I had read that the academic staff were marking down students for irrelevant attributes correlated with class such as accent I would have been sceptical – my experience of academics is that their biases tend the other way – but I would have certainly wished a stop put to it, if it were confirmed to be happening.

If, if, if. So many ways those smooth Oxbridge types could be letting down the young proletarians under their charge. Then I read the article.

The proportion of poorer students at Britain’s leading universities has stalled over the past decade and has even fallen at some institutions.

About a sixth of students from disadvantaged backgrounds started at Russell Group universities last year, compared with a third of wealthier students.

On average, students from poorer homes made up 20.8 per cent of new undergraduates in 2014/15 compared with 19.5 per cent a decade earlier.
Millions of pounds has been spent by universities to widen access and attract students from deprived neighbourhoods. Oxford and Cambridge took the lowest proportion of students from poorer backgrounds out of the 24 Russell Group universities, according to analysis of official data by the Press Association. At Oxford 10 per cent of students were from disadvantaged homes while at Cambridge it was 10.2 per cent. Ten years ago, poorer students made up about one in eight of Oxbridge entrants.

I should have guessed. “Top universities are failing poor students” is just one of those little in-jokes favoured at High Table. What it means is “State schools are failing poor students”.

25 comments to Failing to understand

  • John Galt III

    Bernie Sanders World:

    “Free college for everyone”

    Another way of saying the same thing: If you want to get a Master Plumber’s License including a Medical Gas endorsement allowing you to do work in hospitals and such which cost my son-in-law $1,000’s in travel, manuals, books and schooling (nearest location – 250 miles roundtrip every weekend for months) that’s your problem to say nothing of the (4) year Journeyman requirement to just get you eligible.

    However, if you want to study transgender Mongolian poetry, well the US government will be happy to pay for this as long as you attend college. To low information voters (the entire left) this is fair as Bernie never tells them how this will all be paid for nor where the money originates.

  • NickM

    Yes and… the big shift has been towards studying local due to the awesome costs of accommodation these days. And yeah, I know it is not just students but mobility in general. This is the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about in a meaningful way for a very large number of Brits. But back to students. Look where most of the Russell Group are located. It is much more to do with that than fees and loans.

    If I am allowed a hint off topic for me housing/transport costs (the box and cox so to speak in that it’s cheaper to live further out but…) is the issue plus ultra facing the UK. This about students is a symptom – not the disease.

    I think we can all agree that the very basics of life include shelter. If any of the others of these basics (such as food, clothing, fuel) were to rise as dramatically (and on a credit bubble as well) as housing there would be blood on the streets but way too many people who are home owners or even “home owners” (y’ cathc my drift?) think they are actually making real money out of this.

    Real money is about making and doing things. It is not about a garage in Chelsea being “worth” GBP350,000.

    If you doubt me I have some lovely deals on tulip bulbs right now…

    Back to the students. Living away from home as a student is much more expensive than in the fairly recent past and that more than anything dents social mobility.

  • NickM

    JG III,
    Can you quote me some transgender Mongolian poetry? I am given to understand the rhyme and cadence is exquisite.

  • Bffb

    Sven i was entering university back in 2000 you could survive on the student loan which was about 3600 a year and this was staying in catered dorms. Ok the dorms were ‘budget’ and furnished like a 1970s guesthouse but we didn’t care.

  • Steph Houghton

    Nick I am not good a recitation, but I understand their are four cadences, walk, trot, canter, and gallop.

  • Firstly, from Natalie’s quotation from The Times:

    About a sixth of students from disadvantaged backgrounds started at Russell Group universities last year, compared with a third of wealthier students.

    Now, someone really has to say this. Russell Group Universities set higher A-level and other intellectual entry requirements (compared to other UK universities, other UK higher education organisations and no pursuit of higher education); thus the successful candidates for Russell Group Universities very likely need to be intellectually better. There is some (marked though not total) causation from intellectual ability to wealth, as applied to parents. There is some (marked though not total) causation from parental intellect to offspring intellect. Hence there is some (marked though not total) correlation between parental wealth and offspring intellectual ability: leading to some (marked but not total) greater proportional successful candidature at Russell Group Universities by the offspring of the more wealthy than by the offspring of the less wealthy.

    There are doubtless other causes too, of the reported sixth/third disparity. Some of those might be more easily disposed of than the above-mentioned one.

    Secondly, from NickM’s comment at February 18, 2016 at 5:01 pm:

    … where most of the Russell Group are located … Living away from home as a student is much more expensive …

    That is certainly true for many Russell Group Universities, if not all of them. It is also the case that student loans do not, IIRC, really fund the realistic costs of living away from home. Parental financial support is usually necessary for university attendance. This is even if the student has paid work during the summer, and perhaps during other breaks too. Working during university term time is likely to impinge adversely on academic effort. The problem is that student loan limits do not adequately address the need, for students without any prospect of parental financial support.

    There is also, for students from less well-off families, likely to be much less desire to attend university for subjects that do not have a strong vocational benefit. On this, it would be useful to know what are the different splits between STEM and non-STEM courses, for the third of students from wealthier backgrounds and for the sixth of students from less-wealthy backgrounds.

    Best regards

  • veryretired

    Western education, from primary levels up to post-grad has degenerated into a travesty that force-feeds collectivist sludge into the minds of our youth instead of an actual education. It is this fateful dereliction of our duty as parents and educators that will haunt our culture for far longer, and with more serious consequences, than any rises in the temperature.

    We were speaking with SWMBO’s brother the other day. One of his multitude of daughters attends NYU. She was telling him that all her classmates are just gaga for Bernie for President.

    I’m not sure how he took it when I said I couldn’t think of a more convincing indictment of the miserable state of our educational system than that so many supposedly intelligent young people could fall for a crazed old marxist like him.

  • Red Pike

    Yet more garbage from the Times. Flipping from a precision of one decimal place to the nearest whole number to ‘about one in eight’. Also, no mention that students from wealthier backgrounds are, on average, smarter than students from poorer backgrounds.

  • Rich Rostrom

    What it means is “State schools are failing poor students”.

    But are there any private universities in Britain? Wiki sez there are five.

    Also, regarding the locations of “Russell Group” universities: AFAIK, the only “college towns” in Britain are Oxford and Cambridge. That is, those are the only two cities where a university is the city’s primary institution, and even its main reason for existing. Is that true?

  • Patrick Crozier

    You could probably add St Andrews to that list.

  • Alsadius

    Funny, when I read that I parsed “failing” as “not passing”, and “poor” as “bad”. My first thought was “Well I’d damn well hope so!”.

  • Paul Marks

    In other news – it has been noted that the number of Rolls Royce cars owned by poor people is quite low.

    Going to university for years to study the liberal arts (the social sciences and humanities) is consumption (of course more rich people do it than poor people) – it is, hopefully, an enjoyable experience. However, “getting a good job” should have nothing to do with it.

    The cult of “graduate only” that has grown up since World War II has done a lot of harm.

  • JohnK

    You might have thought that this pathetic social engineering might decline under a Conservative government, but of course you would be wrong. That is why people are disillusioned about politics: whoever you vote for, the government wins.

    I think this helps explain the popularity of Trump: some of what he says is garbage, but he says what he thinks, he doesn’t run it past a focus group first. He isn’t part of the blob. Thus, when Pope Frank disses him like the Argie Commie he is, Trump tells the Pope to get stuffed. He truly doesn’t care about these schmucks, and that is why the Ordinary Joes like him.

    The likes of Jeb! are just focus group nonentities. Nothing would change under President Jeb!, but under President Trump they just might, and at least his press conferences would be interesting.

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    The curse of Democracy- Governments always think they have a mandate to just keep on growing.

  • Mary Contrary

    John Galt III wrote:

    However, if you want to study transgender Mongolian poetry, well the US government will be happy to pay for this as long as you attend college. To low information voters (the entire left) this is fair as Bernie never tells them how this will all be paid for nor where the money originates.

    All the left cares about is where the money ends up.

  • Stonyground

    Red Pike:
    “Also, no mention that students from wealthier backgrounds are, on average, smarter than students from poorer backgrounds.”

    That was going to be my point but you beat me to it. I’m just a farm worker’s son who grew up in a tied cottage and had a mediocre comprehensive education. A generation on and I am a home owner and my family is certainly not rich but we are not poor either. We got here by our own efforts, holding down reasonably good jobs and carefully managing our household budgets. There seems to be the idea going around that poor people being poor is somebody else’s fault and that if only they had the same opportunities as wealthier people they would be wealthy too.

  • Mal Reynolds

    As a recent (2012) Cambridge graduate this whole issue struck me as incredibly odd. I came to the uni from my local State school as did a few of my friends. The ones agitating for “failing poor students” were those who went to the top public and grammar schools. The ones who went on the student protests were those who went to top public and grammar schools. The ones who studied pointless “liberal arts” degrees were those who went to top public and grammar schools. The ones who read The Guardian religiously were those who went to top public and grammar schools. It seemed absolutely nuts to me. These incredibly well-off folk thinking we couldn’t just do anything or get anywhere by ourselves without their gracious help.

    Oxbridge cannot do any more for students from poorer backgrounds. They are already more lenient on A Level requirements. There are massive outreach programs. There is an absolutely huge amount of funding available to cover living costs/ study costs/ miscellaneous costs (one of my closest mates who grew up in very shitty conditions had more disposable income than many who were being funded by parents because of all the extra funding there was; he ended up sending loads back to his mum to help her out). The main reason poorer students don’t get into Oxbridge is, as mentioned in this post, because State schools are just a “bit” shit.

  • Cal

    The standards required to get into a lot of courses at a lot of Russell Group Unis isn’t really that high. There are shedloads of mediocre students at those Unis. If you can’t get in already, then, regardless of whether it’s your fault or your state school’s fault or nobody’s fault, you really shouldn’t be there.

  • RRS

    This is Wordsmithing.

    “News” (and periodicals) writers are concerned with expression, not communication.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Mal Reynolds, very interesting. When I was fairly new at Oxford, over thirty years ago, I once came within a whisker of making a very embarrassing remark. One of the girls in my (physics) tutor group had mentioned that she went hunting. On a horse. With hounds. This was as remote from my experience as the ways of a tribe of Amazonian headhunters. “But you’re really clever,” I almost blurted out. (She was good at physics even for Oxford. In contrast I had recently had the salutary experience of going from being top of the class at school to being pretty thick relative to many of my friends.) The point was that it was widely assumed that the students coming from state schools were probably brighter than the ones, like this girl, who had been privately educated, given that the private schools* were somewhat better at getting people into Oxbridge. Of course in those days most of the state school kids would have gone to grammar schools, presumably a much rarer thing now.

    My impression nowadays is that the best of the state schools can equal or better most of the independent schools. But the state average has been dragged down by indiscipline and misguided teaching methods. I know beyond all doubt from later experience in the field of educational writing that dumbing down in the sciences is no myth.

    *A reminder for our American readers: “state schools” are public schools. Private schools are private schools, except for really old and posh private schools which are public schools. Unless you’re a girl. Private schools for girls may claim to be public schools but privately no one quite believes it.

  • Paul Marks


    Mr Donald Trump is even more a man of the establishment than John Ellis Bush is. Not that Mr Bush has any chance of winning anything anyway.

    It is astonishes me that people will not do even five minutes background research.

    The Trump Cult is as stupid as the Obama cult was.

    People keep refusing to do any background research – but still insist on their right to express their opinions.

    Opinions that are based on no work – none at all.

  • Paul Marks

    Mal Reynolds (by the way I hope the ship is running O.K. and you are getting on well with your new pilot).

    You put me in mind of an old problem – the privately educated leftist.

    I am knowledgeable person – that is not a boast, it is a fact (and in some ways an unfortunate one). I know many things that most people do not know – and most of the things I know are terrible. Utterly horrific.

    The things I know are also of no practical use to me – they do not enable me to lead a better life (quite the contrary).

    Parents would have to be mad to pay money to a school to teach their children the things that Paul Marks knows – such things would not aid their children, they would distract and undermine them (if not drive them screaming mad). The lives of the children would be ruined – they would not function well in the world.

    What parents do is pay schools to teach their children things (and attitudes) that will enable them to fit into the world – to “get on” and be happy.

    So private schools teaching the same sort of things as state schools (just teaching this stuff better) makes perfect sense.

  • Paul Marks

    It is just the same in the United States – most of the elite private schools teach the same view of the world (the expansion of government is “reform”) as the government schools. They just teach this stuff better.

    As they teach all subjects better – for good as well as ill.

    There are private schools that oppose the establishment view – but they are mostly very religious schools.

  • AngryTory

    “More will mean worse”

    the problem isn’t the universities or the schools: its the 95% of students who have no business being there in the first place!

  • JohnK


    Trump may be part of the business establishment (if there is such a thing), but he is not part of the Republican Party establishment. As far as I can see, the Republican National Committee hates him, and would rather have a safe candidate like Marco Rubio, whom they think would attract the Latino voters who will all vote Democrat whatever they do.