School of thought

06 August 2020

After suggestions that the country’s top universities are cultivating privilege, many are taking impressive measures to encourage equality by accepting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
For a long time, top universities like Oxford and Cambridge have been famously hard to get into and for many they have been a pipe dream. “The chance to go to university has been something of a postcode lottery,” says Sir Michael Barber, Chair of the Office for Students. “What is an assumed rite of passage for many young people across the country is often viewed very differently in rural and coastal communities, the industrial heartlands and military towns.”
But as society has sharpened its focus on inclusion and diversity, those revered universities are moving with the times. In 2018, the Office for Students set new national targets to achieve equality of opportunity in higher education and, since then, universities and colleges have been devising strategies to meet them. After facing claims that they are admitting too many students from private schools and not enough from more disadvantaged backgrounds, some of the UK’s most prestigious universities have made pledges to make significant changes.
The Sutton Trust social mobility charity has highlighted the fact that students from just eight UK schools filled 1,310 (over half) of Oxbridge’s places over three years. The other 2,900 schools shared the rest of the places. The Office for Students says: “Young people from the most advantaged areas of England are currently more than six times as likely to attend one of the top universities – including Oxford, Cambridge and other members of the Russell Group – as those from the most disadvantaged areas.”
According to a new report from the higher education regulator, if these universities meet their new commitments, the access gap will almost halve in the next five years.


Target grades

The aim of this new approach is to ensure that intelligent, high-performing young people from all schools across the UK have the same chance of getting into the country’s best universities. Oxford University aims to have a quarter of its students come from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2023. Each year, the university’s access scheme will have places for 200 high-achieving disadvantaged students. Identifying who is disadvantaged will be done using a postcode-based system measuring the level of deprivation in the student’s local area, but the university will also consider qualifiers such as if the student has spent time in care or if they are eligible for free school meals.


A degree of concern

Change is not always welcome, however, and there are some who have raised concerns about the new approach. Mike Buchanan, formerly The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference Executive Director, says: “Care is needed in starting actively to discriminate against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into. The country needs all its young people to reach their potential if we are to create a bright new future for Britain post-Brexit. We urge the government to enable universities and colleges to expand to take as many truly suitable students as necessary, rather than rob some students of a future to award it to others.”

While the aim is to create more equal opportunities for young people who are less fortunate, there is worry that by actively seeking students from disadvantaged areas, those from independent schools will miss out. This concern is amplified when parents have paid thousands for their child’s education. But the approach will not be awarding students with places based purely on their background: the criteria remain focused on academic ability while ensuring that students do not all come from the same schools.


Pass or fail

Time will tell whether or not this approach to tackling the access gap will be successful. But while the outcome is unknown, the hope remains that top universities will one day be more equally accessible to young people from all backgrounds – creating a fair education system.


How to fund a university education

Senior Wealth Planner Craig Miller explains how you can help your children financially at university.

  • How much does it cost?

    Standard tuition fees are £9,250 a year and the average living cost for a student is £807 a month, which is £9,684 a year. All in all, you’re looking at about £19,000 a year. For a three-year university course that’s nearly £57,000.

  • Has this changed over the years?

    It has quadrupled since I graduated in 2002.

  • How much should parents pay?

    A lot of the time people don’t want to pay for everything (including the living cost, fees and rent) because they want their children to appreciate the value of money. There is a gap between the maintenance grant and the average cost of living, so there’s a minimum for parents or grandparents to contribute to make up that gap, which is about £250 a month or £3,000 a year. That would be the bare minimum to contribute, but it depends what you can afford.

  • When should I start saving?

    I would recommend planning from the day your child is born so you benefit from the power of compound interest. With inflation, if your child is born this year, by the time they go to university it could cost £88,000. If you make regular investments starting the day they are born, and receive 5% return a year from your investment, you would only need to pay £177 a month to cover the full cost of your child’s education.

  • What if I've left it a little bit late?

    You can follow a similar sort of strategy but obviously you would be making much bigger regular payments. Or you could make lump sum investments and hope it grows over the time you have left to save.

  • Where should I keep the money?

    There’s often a temptation to dip into savings, so I typically set up a discretionary trust for clients so they can’t access the money. I would avoid junior ISAs as, although they are attractive because they are tax free, a lot of parents are not aware that as soon as their child turns 18, they can take that money and might have other plans for it. 

  • Should I pay the fees upfront?

    It can be a risk paying upfront because, if your child earns under the threshold (£25,725) or earns an average income following graduation, there is a chance that they will never have to repay all of their loan, as debts are wiped after 30 years. For this reason, it could be worth holding the funds until their post-graduation situation becomes clearer. If they are unlikely to have high earnings in their chosen career, the money could be better used for something else, such as a house deposit. As ever, it always depends on your circumstances.

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