Top universities 'have become less representative'

University College London lecture UCL was one of the universities to increase its share of state educated students

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The UK's top universities have become less socially representative in the past decade, a new report claims.

The proportion of students from state schools who started a full-time course in one of the top 24 universities fell slightly between 2002-3 and 2011-12.

A separate measure of how many students came from disadvantaged backgrounds also saw a fall, the Social Mobility Commission report said.

The government said applications from poor youngsters were at a record high.

The report, Higher Education: The fair access challenge, focuses on 24 leading universities, members of the Russell Group universities, which are among the most competitive to get into.

'Socially exclusive'

Led by former Labour minister, Alan Milburn, the commission found that in contrast to the overall university sector, which has become more "socially representative" since 2002-3, these most selective universities have become more "socially exclusive".

It argues that although the estimated number of state school pupils entering these universities increased by 1,464 over the period, there was still a slight fall in the overall proportion.

This was because the universities had created nearly 2,900 extra places overall and almost half of these extra places had been awarded to privately educated individuals.

At the same time, there was also a drop of 0.9 percentage points to 19% in the number of entrants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Although some universities in the group had managed to increase their percentage of students from state schools, including Edinburgh (by 4.6 percentage points), Oxford (by 2.3) and Cambridge (by 0.3), Durham saw a fall of 9.9 percentage points in their state-educated students and Newcastle and Warwick each had drops of around 4.5.

Clear targets

The commission also pointed out that the intake of the most selective universities was more socially advantaged than would be expected given the social background of those with the necessary A-level grades to get a place.

One possible explanation, the report says, is that many students who have the right grades simply do not apply to the most selective institutions.

The report calls for universities to be set clear statistical targets for progress on widening participation which should be a top priority.

And it calls for universities to make greater use of contextual data when offering places. This means that they might make a lower offer to a pupil from a state school who shows academic promise.

Start Quote

Widening participation requires 'a genuine national effort' ”

End Quote Nicola Dandridge Chief executive of UUK

And it calls for schools to be set five-year targets to close the achievement gap between advantaged and less advantaged children.

Mr Milburn said: "There is widespread acknowledgement that the blame game where universities blame schools, schools blame parents and everyone blames the government - must stop."

He said there was an "increasing determination" to tackle the issue, but that the challenge was to ensure that these "good intentions translate into better outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds".

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said many and varied factors which lead to the under-representation of students from disadvantaged background cannot be solved by universities alone.

"Ultimately too few students from some state schools get the right grades in the right subjects and even those who do are less likely to apply to leading universities."

And she stressed that universities were working hard to tackle the issue but added: "This is an entrenched problem and there is no quick fix - it will take time to raise aspirations, attainment and improve advice and guidance offered to students in some schools."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said getting a university education should be based on ability, not where you come from.

"To ensure worries about finance are not putting off students we have increased grants to help with living costs, introduced a more progressive student loans system, and extended help to part-time students.

"We are committed to improving social mobility, and are pleased that this year the level of university applications from the most disadvantaged 18-year-olds are at their highest proportion ever."

Chief executive of Universities UK Nicola Dandridge said: "While good progress has been made in widening participation over recent years, there remains work to be done, particularly in relation to access to the most selective institutions and courses.

"We agree that widening participation requires 'a genuine national effort' with sustained support from schools, colleges and universities, as well as continued investment by government."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 715.

    Usoids defacate in groups of aboreal plantings

    If your parents have the money you can be reasonably sure of a good home environment, a room of your own, access to books, and intellectual stimualtion, continual encouragement, the best schools, a minimum of disruptive pupils, tutors if needed, and lo and behold, you will tend to do much better than most - and go to the best universities.

  • Comment number 714.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 713.

    I'm currently studying at a Russell Group University - Glasgow, which is an incredibly diverse and welcoming place. They have done a fantastic job at breaking down elitism, to the point where everyone is equal, as it should be. I also had an interview at Oxbridge, and hated the environment so much that I would probably have rejected them anyway! There's more to university than just a degree!

  • rate this

    Comment number 712.

    My uni was not that diverse, it even struggled with kids from working class backgrounds like me. However if the diverse uni where I did my masters is anything to go on I prefer the former. It was all Chinese and Indian kids eating junk food and spending all night on computers, most of whom were socially/culturally behind the curve, uninterested in the UK and generally uncouth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 711.

    The best school in the world is the Aggassi school in the poorest part of Las Vegas. Go from kindergarden to 18 and you do an extra two years, best paid teachers because of the extra hours and weeks, yet half the cost per child pa of Nevarda. Most of the mothers are single and most of the fathers are in prison. Great attendence, great results. Google it and send your children to the OU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 710.

    Lord Brown's report was, of course, brilliant but he didn't forsee that the universities would choose not to compete with each other on price but rather all go for the near maximum £9,000 fee.

    A big problem for the squeezed middle children but not for the poor who will enter the labour market with no loans. The latter will not do science or engineering as their school didn't do these subjects.

  • Comment number 709.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 708.

    My son has dyscalcia, dyspraxia and dyslexia. He did not achieve much at GCSE, did a small animal certificate for 2 years and then went onto do A levels. He has done really well on his A levels and was taken by his colleges "gifted and talented" programme to both Oxford and Cambridge. He did not apply to a Russell Group university in the end, he felt they were too snobby.

  • rate this

    Comment number 707.

    "Education, education, education" in reality has been "money, money, money". A doubling of the cost of state eduction from £3k to £6k per pupil pa with some costing as much as £10k pa.

    You could teach 3 children for 8 months pa and get £30k pa.

    Yet the gap between the state and private sectors has only widened with some private schools getting straight As year after year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 706.

    that is why lecturers should get out & about,it gave me a interest to find out about money & economics i have read many since obviously limited by my intellect,but i got a opportunity to expand my arisen s,that engagement is the vital piece of the jigsaw,otherwise you dumb down with the rest of your peers
    Anyway time for me to go goodnight

  • rate this

    Comment number 705.


    It's no surprise at all to most of us...... except people from the most privileged backgrounds - such as those who tend to go on to work in the media..& politics....

    I feel for the young people from ordinary backgrounds, contemplating being saddled with £45,000 debt in return for a University place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 704.

    692. essiritussantos

    My earlier post was sarcastic.

    Gifted individuals need only be pointed towards a body of knowledge because they can work it out for themselves. Such individuals are rare. Others require support, which is, I suspect inversely proportional to ability.

    Accusations of 'Dumbing down' - are dumb because a higher education pre-supposes open ended learning in many cases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 703.

    The Russell group receive huge sums of public money and should educate entrants from all backgrounds. They are not trying hard enough to do that. A strong financial penalty is the only solution, financial incentives have failed miserably.

  • Comment number 702.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 701.

    698 Shims
    Agreed,but we are where we are unfortunately!
    Is there anything that might help your students........

  • Comment number 700.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 699.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 698.

    Why is this coming as a surprise? has anyone given any though to the finance involved in going to uni? Many of my students in state school could not afford the cost of tuition fees and would not want to burden themselves with a huge loan for the rest of their lives. Its not rocket science...having money in the family makes a has litttle to do with low aspirations!

  • rate this

    Comment number 697.

    Maybe if Russell Group Unis spent more of their budget targeting state schools and sending out more staff to visit unrepresented areas,to try and increase uptake in those state schools,maybe also time at least part of their presentation for evenings and weekends in order for more working parents to attend and become more informed about the top tier which could effect how positive they are about it

  • rate this

    Comment number 696.

    693 gerald
    There is just to much politics even though it isn't actually taught in schools, between 1780's till mid 1900 schooling hardly changed,whilst it may have needed changing it,it certainly never needed changing so often ,sometimes you need step back & tinker,change can evolve & is often the best way for change to do so


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