Top universities are desperate to admit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Unfortunately, accepting more students from these backgrounds would dilute academic standards, a price that universities cannot afford to pay. This trade-off between excellence and widening participation informs much of the debate about access to higher education and frequently provides universities with a ready-made excuse as to why they cannot alter admissions policy to assist potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But whilst it might seem like a self-evident truth that, for example, giving lower offers to students from poorer backgrounds will reduce academic standards, the evidence suggests that this is not necessarily the case. As Alan Milburn puts it in his report on higher education, ‘the distinction between equity and excellence is a false one’. Amongst the evidence Milburn cites to defend this claim are two reports by the Higher Education Funding Council for England which found that students from state schools are more likely to do well at university than students from private schools who have the same A-level grades. The reason for this is straightforward; exam results measure achievement rather than potential, and students who have achieved a set of results despite a lower quality of education probably have more potential than those who end up with the same results after receiving a first-rate education. Rather than undermining academic excellence, giving students from disadvantaged backgrounds lower offers may actually improve standards at that university.
Even if standards did slip as a result of policies aimed at improving access for poorer students it is not clear why this should lead to an automatic rejection of such policies. As important as academic excellence is, it should not be the only goal universities pursue. Like all public institutions they have a broader responsibility to ensure that they uphold basic values like fairness. The entire pre-university education system tempers the pursuit of excellence by recognising a range of other values. The prospect of secondary schools refusing to admit less able students for fear of undermining academic excellence strikes us as unpalatable because we recognise that fairness requires that schools do everything they can to serve as wide a cross section of the local community as possible.
The fact that universities are selective does not absolve them of the responsibility to be fair. At the moment this is interpreted narrowly to mean that they must not discriminate between applicants with equally impressive applications. However, if universities are to maintain their status as progressive institutions of learning they must move towards recognising a more comprehensive notion of fairness, one that takes account of the broader impact that university admissions can have on society and acknowledges that well motivated institutions that fail to take into account the context in which they operate can end up perpetuating disadvantage. It is no longer good enough for them to hide behind the myth of excellence.