University bosses meeting ministers to discuss improving diversity


University chiefs are meeting with ministers to discuss ways to secure more places for black students amid disagreement over David Cameron's vow to introduce new laws to "shame" them into ending race inequality.

Elite institutions, who strongly defended their record from attack by the Prime Minister and pointed the finger at poor schooling, have been summoned to talks with Business Secretary Sajid Javid. 

At the weekend, Mr Cameron warned educational institutions, the police, the military and the courts they were all the focus of a new effort to tackle social inequality, suggesting it might be fuelled by "ingrained, institutional and insidious" racism.

The PM said the absence of any black generals, the fact that just 4% of FTSE 100 chief executives were from ethnic minorities and that young black men were more likely to be in prison than at a top university "should shame our country and jolt us to action".

"I don't care whether it's overt, unconscious or institutional - we've got to stamp it out," he wrote in The Sunday Times, warning it would otherwise only "feed those who preach a message of grievance and victimhood".

Universities have been summoned to a meeting with Mr Javid to discuss the plan to force them to publish detailed breakdowns of application success rates by race as well as course, gender and socio-economic background.

He said it was "striking" that the 2,500-strong 2014 intake at his own university - Oxford - included only 27 black students and suggested it was "not doing enough to attract talent from across our country".

But Oxford said it did "not see the need" for such legislation and insisted the effects of social inequality were "already pronounced before children begin formal schooling" and could not be addressed by higher education alone.

"Any serious solution to the problem of unequal educational progression must take into account the unequal distribution of high attainment across schools, socio-economic groups, even geography," a spokesman said.

He said 367 undergraduates from ethnic minority backgrounds were accepted in 2015, 15% more than in 2010 - 64 of those being black students, up from 39 five years ago.

"We are constantly working to update what information we provide and although we do not see the need for further legislation, we would welcome discussions on what more information we could publish," the spokesman said.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of elite universities, said universities invested a "huge amount of time, effort and resources" into broadening the student mix but needed more help from others.

"There are still far too many children from disadvantaged backgrounds underachieving at school and receiving poor advice and guidance.

"It will take time, commitment, and sustained action from a range of agencies to raise pupils' aspirations, increase attainment and improve the advice and guidance offered."

Labour MP David Lammy has also been recruited by Number 10 to carry out a major review into discrimination in the criminal justice system, including why black offenders are more likely to be jailed for the same offences as their white criminal counterpart.

The university access watchdog said only universities with a commitment to "focus more sharply" on successful equalities work would be granted permission to charge higher fees.

Les Ebdon, the director of Fair Access To Higher Education who approves "access agreements", said he would "challenge them to match the Prime Minister's ambition".

"He is right to highlight the wide gaps - both in access and outcomes - between students of different ethnic backgrounds" despite the sustained progress of the last decade, Professor Ebdon said.

"Under the access agreements they must agree with me if they want to charge higher tuition fees, universities and colleges plan to invest £750 million annually by 2019-20 on activities and financial support to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education and succeed in their studies.

"The Prime Minister has set out ambitious goals on fair access and it's important that universities and colleges have the tools, support and challenge to make further and faster progress.

"I will shortly be publishing guidance for institutions who wish to have an access agreement in 2017-18. This guidance will make clear that universities must focus more sharply on the outcomes of their fair access work. I will challenge them to match the Prime Minister's ambition so that anyone with the ability to succeed in higher education has the opportunity to do so, whatever their background."