Universities right to favour poorer students, says Education Secretary James Cleverly

·5 min read
James Cleverly, Education Secretary, said that admissions were the 'responsibility of universities' - Jamie Lorriman
James Cleverly, Education Secretary, said that admissions were the 'responsibility of universities' - Jamie Lorriman

Universities are right to prioritise places for poorer pupils, the Education Secretary has said.

In his first comments on the debate over alleged “social engineering” in higher education, James Cleverly says that he is “not uncomfortable” with universities using the background of children to decide between applicants with similar grades.

His stance appears to be different from that of his predecessor, Nadhim Zahawi, who said earlier this year that universities should not “tilt the system” to ensure more pupils from state schools attend elite institutions.

It comes as, on Thursday, tens of thousands of teenagers will get their A-level results but have been warned to brace for disappointment as predicted grades are expected to have been overly generous.

A higher than usual number of pupils are expected to go through clearing after exam boards were also ordered to crack down on grade inflation and reduce the proportion of As and A*s awarded.

Whereas last year, the proportion of top grades reached a record 45 per cent, this is expected to fall to around 35 per cent.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Cleverly said: “If universities are recognising that for some students in some circumstances, getting the top grade or whatever grade they’re making offers against, are harder than students from other schools and other backgrounds then I’m not uncomfortable with that.”

Asked whether he would be concerned by private school and grammar school pupils facing tougher entry requirements than state school pupils, he said that students should be “matched to the courses that their attributes and their attainment”, but said that if a student’s higher performance is against a tougher backdrop than in other circumstances, “I don’t think it’s wrong that that is recognised”.

Oxbridge pledge to take in more disadvantaged students

For the first time on record, university applicants from the most advantaged areas are the least likely to hold an offer ahead of receiving their results.

Some of the most prestigious universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, have pledged to take in more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, leading to fears that middle-class pupils are more likely to be rejected.

The University of Cambridge said this week that it would aim to accommodate pupils from “challenging backgrounds” on A-level results day.

Mr Cleverly said that admissions were the “responsibility of universities” and the Government “can’t and we don’t dictate to universities how they do admissions”.

Mr Cleverly warned teenagers that predicted grades are usually on the “generous side” and said the race for places in clearing is expected to be “more dynamic than in previous years”.

Around 40 per cent of applicants are expected to try and find a place through the system.

More than 1,000 fewer courses have places available through clearing at the competitive Russell Group universities compared to last year.

Limited spaces in clearing

On Wednesday night, the universities of Edinburgh and Bristol said they had no places available in clearing. Other top universities, such as Manchester and Cardiff, said they had limited spaces.

A spokesman for the University of Cardiff said: “Our message to high-quality students still looking for places is to contact us immediately as the picture will change minute by minute and our remaining places are in high demand.”

Across UK universities there were 22,685 courses with vacancies for students living in England on Wednesday, of which 1,785 courses were at Russell Group institutions.

Teenagers who might consider deferring their place until 2023 have been advised to "think very carefully" by Chris Hale, the interim chief executive of Universities UK, as fierce competition for university places is expected to continue next year.

Ucas has forecast the number of applicants to UK universities to rise from around 700,000 this year to one million in 2026 as there will be more 18-year-olds in the population and demand from overseas students is likely to continue to grow.

Exam boards were ordered to set grade boundaries at a midpoint between 2021 and 2019, which would mean about 80,000 fewer top grades are awarded.

Mr Cleverly said he expects grade inflation to come down to roughly a midpoint between the two years and would be a “step in the right direction” towards pre-pandemic levels.

“The feedback that I’ve already picked up speaking to students in my conversations that I’ve had is that they want their exam results to be viewed externally as a fair reflection of their own work,” he said. “That’s what we were looking to get back to. I’m pretty confident we’re going to head in the right direction.”

This year’s pupils have never sat public exams, as when they were due to take their GCSEs formal tests were cancelled owing to Covid.

Pupils sitting some A-levels this year were given advance information in recognition of the disruption they have faced over the past few years.

While the Government has planned for a two-year transition back to normal exams, Mr Cleverly did not rule out extra support for pupils next year.

He said: “Ultimately, our desire as I say it to get back to exams without adaptations. That’s our ultimate endpoint. Our hope is to get that for next year, but we don’t want to completely close off options for ourselves, if - big if - if we feel they’re needed.”