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Co-Chair of HMC Universities Committee on ‘fair access’ to higher education

In light of concurrent debate on whether UK universities are doing enough to enable all students to aim for higher education, The Boar interviewed Mr Christopher Ramsey, headmaster and chairman of a universities committee, for his opinions on the topic.

Mr Ramsey is the headmaster of Whitgift School, a selective boys’ independent school in South London, and often writes on the topic of “fair access” to education. He also Co-Chairs the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) Universities Committee.

The committee consists of a group of secondary school leaders from the independent and state school sectors. Once a term, the committee meets with university leaders and admissions teams to ensure schools understand universities and vice versa.

Recently, he also warned of Russell Group institutions giving out degrees to students regardless of whether they met their entry requirements and offers or not.

Regarding the definition of “fair access” to university, Mr Ramsey referenced the Robbins Report, which was a guideline for higher education institutions approved by the British government published in 1963.

He quoted the main principle, which states that “courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”, as the definition of fair access.

Responding to recent news that Oxford was “lacking diversity” after four colleges failed to admit any black students in two years, and that Tokyo Medical University altered the scores of female students to decrease their admissions, he said: “Fair access should be that the best people – taking into account their background – should get in.”

Proposals by the Office for Students (OfS) against problems regarding access, such as the aforementioned, now state that universities with wide gaps in the diversity of student intake will have to publish plans on how they will improve every three years.

Mr Ramsey clarified that most universities’ current approach “have gone more down the outreach line”, such as by “encouraging more people from different backgrounds to apply in the first place”.

He said that, despite these efforts, the OfS “are saying [universities] are not making enough progress” in terms of encouraging people of different backgrounds into higher education, although he believes that “there’s a natural 3-4 year university career path” which has to take place first for progress towards diversity.

Fair access should be that the best people – taking into account their background – should get in

– Christopher Ramsey

Higher education groups and watchdogs have also been calling for more black and minority ethnic (BME) and female role models at universities.

Commenting on these suggestions, Mr Ramsey said: “In time, this will change, and there will be more BME academics, once more coming to university.

“In the end, the world doesn’t change quickly, it changes slowly, but it will change. There would be other people who would say: ‘We can’t wait! It’s more urgent than that.’”

He also supported that all institutions should aim for “equality of access” in order to create an equality of outcome: “Since humans are all different, it stands to reason that equality of opportunity will lead to varying outcomes. If we want equality of outcome, we must make opportunities unequal.

“Most people instinctively want equality of opportunity, equality of access. So do I, but it does mean some will emerge more successful than others.”

Responding to whether certain groups should have lower or higher entry requirements as a solution, he said: “There are certainly individual cases where requirements should be adjusted. A student who has had a very disadvantaged background could quite reasonably be offered a lower entry grade.

“However, we need to be careful that students are not ‘set up to fail’: for example, a medical or maths course really needs entrants to have top A Level grades – they will simply flounder if they do not have them. The real answer is, of course, raising standards in all schools.”

Moving on to the topic of whether raising student loans or introducing means-tested fees, would improve access to higher education for poorer students, he commented: “It’s a personal view, but I feel very strongly that the interest rates on your student loans are scandalous.

“I cannot see how any government can justify interest rates above base rate for a student. I just cannot see how anyone got away with that.

“We all know that higher education has got to be paid for but…the government is going to have to write off 50% of it anyway.

“At my school, we have experiences of reducing the fees for disadvantaged families. You can’t just wait for them to apply. From an institution’s perspective, you have to actually [provide for them], because people don’t like applying for exemptions, as no one likes asking for money.”

I feel very strongly that the interest rates on your student loans are scandalous

– Christopher Ramsey

Mr Ramsey also pointed out issues with the admissions system of UK universities. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has recently been criticised for “racial profiling”, after it was found that applications from black students were 21 times more likely to be flagged by the system.

He pointed out that the UCAS system, as opposed to the US application process, is less student-involved. He said: “Regarding universities growing in size and becoming impersonal, some of the feedback – not just from my own school, but other schools as well, through the HMC committee – is that a lot of UK six formers feel that the whole process is quite impersonal, particularly from big, typically Russell Group universities.”

“The other thing that I feel quite strongly for is that the personal statement is such a great idea, but students spend weeks on them. Wouldn’t that time be better spent, or isn’t there some way of having a conversation?

“In some ways, a 10 minute conversation with a prospective student would tell you more than weeks of writing a personal statement.”

He suggested more alternatives to the current application system, such having “teams of alumni for skype-calls [or] facetime” for interview, as “it would give students a chance to talk about themselves in a much for nuanced way.”

Sharing the experiences of students at Whitgift School with the Clearing procedure, which has been suggested this year as having been a mechanism for students to “shop” for better universities, he said that students feel as though the dichotomy of application process and then Clearing has “all got a bit impersonal”.

Mr Ramsey showed his support for suggestions – such as that by the UUK – that applicants should declare their mental health in their university applications.

He described the fact that only a small number of young people would tell their universities of their mental health condition as a “horrific” statistic, and said: “I think the school should have the right and the duty to refer that on to the university.”

I think the school should have the right and the duty to refer [a student’s mental health] on to the university

– Christopher Ramsey

Mental health has also been closely linked with predicted grades. Commenting on this practice, Mr Ramsey said: “We have this phenomenon in schools called ‘offer high, expect low’. There are some universities which say, in order to get an offer, you will need A*AA, so the schools then think, ‘Well, unless we predict A*AA, students won’t get an offer.’

“They do so, so that the student obviously then has a high aspiration which might be stressful, or which might do them good, but then, the university is going to take them anyway on ABB.

“So you kind of think, ‘Would it be better if we did it all afterwards as a post-qualification application, and wait until you’ve done your A levels?’”

Further discussing problems with admissions, Mr Ramsey referred to the increase in unconditional offers, which has seen a rise of over 2,000% in five years. Referring the Blair government and the expansion of higher education, he pointed out that the Universities of Birmingham and Bristol have been “doubling in size”, yet are “still over-recruiting”.

This year, Warwick experienced an “accommodation crisis” as students were assigned off-campus halls and conference centres, and concerns over the stress on resources have surged. Regarding over-recruitment, Mr Ramsey said: “As a university, you can reduce your clearing numbers at will.”

Mr Ramsey also spoke of the rising trend which has been identified amongst teenagers, wherein less believe in the importance of higher education and he disapproved of the belief that going to university is “the only proper life path”.

He said: “As the head of a high performing selective boys’ school, I put my hands up to that very traditional view. I think our parents and our boys do indeed instinctively think that ‘the only thing I can do is go to university’. Personally I’m not sure that’s very healthy.

“We have quite a big social spread because we have a big bursary programme. By and large, the mindset is quite a middle class mindset: you go to university, that’s what you do.”

Elaborating on why higher education should not be the primary option for students, he said: “Some drop out rates are quite high in universities, which is wasted money, time and life.”

Other university students have expressed their dissatisfaction with the education they received. For example, a student at Anglia Ruskin University sued the institution for giving her a “Mickey Mouse” degree.

Young men are more easily disaffected by sixth form study, and it is a problem we all need to tackle

– Christoper Ramsey

It was also recently found that the number of male university applicants have been the lowest for three years. Mr Ramsey explained that, along with a demographic drop, it could be related to the “male-oriented” marketing of apprenticeships encouraging more boys to take alternatives to university.

He added: “Young men are more easily disaffected by sixth form study, and it is a problem we all need to tackle.”

In terms of pre-university education, Mr Ramsey stated that students are not “well enough prepared on the whole”.

He said: “Many of course thrive, but up to a third of students say they wish they had made different subject or university choices, and the drop out and mental health problem rates are still far too high.

“Universities should reintroduce school liaison offices, and have staff go into all schools – maybe by dividing the country up regionally – delivering courses on ‘how to prepare, where to go for help, how to work independently and how to live as a student’.

“I also think accommodation in the first year should be in smaller units with some older students interspersed amongst the freshers.

“Schools can do a better job in helping students know what independent work is. Extended Projects and the IB are great for this. They can also run finance and mental health first aid courses as standard.”

With regards to encouraging more students to take vocational courses, Mr Ramsey believes they should be more “widely available, as should apprenticeship-style training”, however he iterated that “university is not just about getting a job, whatever marketing departments might say”.

He said: “If you love your chosen area of study, that is what you should pursue at university, for its own sake.”

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