13 Aug '13

News University clearing: amid the scrum, let's not lose sight of the long game

What hope for disadvantaged pupils, asks Pat Thomson, if those who know them best play no part in the process?

I started thinking about Luigi when I heard that most UK universities were going into Clearing this year. This process sees universities having to fess up to what courses aren't full and students ringing them up to see if they can wangle an offer. The rumour is that some universities are not simply answering phones this time, but sending recruiters out to schools and colleges in search of the 'best' students left without a place.

It was thinking about this approach that brought Luigi to mind. I hadn't thought about him for years – he belonged in my former life as a headteacher in Australia. The school he went to, my last post as head, was at a classified disadvantaged school, Australian terminology for a school that serves a community where incomes are low.

Luigi lived on a small vegetable farm. His grandparents had emigrated post-war and worked hard in factories most of their lives to finally buy a bit of land of their own. The whole extended family worked the farm, and it was an annual occurrence for Luigi and his younger brothers to come to school bleary-eyed, having been up all night tending fires that kept the frost off the first tomatoes and cucumbers of the season.

He really wanted to be an architect. His parents were pretty keen on this too, as they wanted something better for him than the relentless labour of vegetable farming. Luigi worked hard all the way through school. His parents and his teachers, as well as Luigi himself, were all hoping that when he got his exam results he would make the very high score that he needed to get into the course of his choice. But he didn't. He got an offer for a general degree, but not architecture.

At the time the elite university in town, the only one that offered architecture, had become exercised about its student mix. Its council decided to experiment with a strategy to enable more pupils from disadvantaged schools to gain entry. Pupils with scores two points below the various course cut-off points would gain entry to those courses – if they also had a personal recommendation from their schools.

Luigi was just one of those pupils and so the dean of the faculty rang me. As it happened I knew him from a few participation committees we'd sat on together and was able to assure him that Luigi was a very hard working young man who would not waste the opportunity if it were offered to him. He would not let any of us, or himself, down, I said.

And he didn't. Despite having an entry score lower than everyone else in the course, Luigi graduated solidly in the middle of his class. He now has a modest practice working on home renovations and low-income housing.

Right now I'm wondering how students like Luigi will fare in the rush to ensure that vacant university places are filled. He wouldn't have been very good at selling himself. I don't think he would have impressed on the phone or to a crack recruiting team. He wasn't used to talking to people from the 'posh' part of town. You had to get to know Luigi to understand his potential and his determination. And I'm pretty sure he would have been passed over in the Clearing rush, a process in which those who know pupils well – teachers and headteachers – have no part.

I worry that the crack Clearing teams will not have time to think about anything other than university places and exam results. These are always pretty arbitrary at the edges, as countless other stories demonstrate. Will there be time to think about the possibilities of giving young people who've really worked hard and not had all of life's advantages a chance to do what they really want? Will the fact that they are shy and not used to these competitive interactions go against them?

I'd like to think that in the scrum of Clearing a few Luigis do make it through. But I fear that they won't. In reality, creating life opportunities for the Luigis of the world requires a long, and not a short, game. Changing who gets access to higher education takes a deliberate strategy on the part of a university, and a long term partnership with schools to develop trust and a genuine sense of mutual endeavour.

Universities, especially those with elite status, have to make special efforts to connect with schools whose students do not traditionally choose higher education. Initiatives need to extend well beyond 'taster visits' to university campuses to support for ongoing academic development.

Nottingham, for example, works with IntoUniversity to run two homework centres in inner city estates, but I can imagine further developments extending to engagement across all university faculties. These might include internships for postgraduate students to be 'experts-in-residence' in schools, funded community projects which apply research to real-life settings, and the development of a strategic plan for joint activities.

Such a plan would cover Clearing. It might even allow local schools and teachers to nominate particular hardworking and deserving students like Luigi to fill places that are vacant. For now, in the scrum to ensure university places are filled, let's not lose sight of this longer game.

Pat Thomson is professor of education and director of the Centre for Advanced Studies at the University of Nottingham – follow her on Twitter @thomsonpat

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