Manifesto for the Director of Fair Access & Participation 30: Sonia Sodha, The Observer

Brightside and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) have released a collection of action points for the new Office for Students on unlocking access to higher education. Reaching the parts of society universities have missed: A manifesto for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation contains the views of 35 leading thinkers from academia, university administration, Parliament, think tanks and the media.

We’re also publishing each entry individually. Here Sonia Sodha, Chief Leader Writer at The Observer, gives her perspective:

‘If we were really committed to improving access to top universities, we would bite the bullet and introduce class-based quotas. Progress on this front has been pathetically slow: yes, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to universities in greater numbers than before, but they remain disproportionately shut out of the highest-ranking institutions.

Between 2010 and 2015, four-in-five students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge came from the top two social classes; only 6 per cent had parents in routine or semi-manual work. This matters: where you graduate from profoundly affects your lifetime earnings.

Enough is enough. It is time to recognise our top universities are more zero-sum than we have previously acknowledged. The Office for Students should reintroduce a cap on student numbers – there is some evidence the economic gains from increasing student numbers stalled back in the mid-2000s – and introduce hard quotas for students from working-class backgrounds for each university.

This would help break down the unfair and stubborn middle-class lock on privilege. It would also force more middle-class students down a vocational route – surely the only way we are ever going to get parity of esteem between post-18 vocational and academic qualifications.’