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 155.

    When the money is tight unis are going to want to taker the best students they can to ensure their grades and rankings remain high, meaning they are more likely to get research grants and the like.In that situation are they likely to take a punt on a student who has great potential but may not be at the highest level? I suspect not and honestly I can't really blame them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    When all of our Political leaders hail from the few top Uni's in the land, is it any wonder they are making it impossible for the plebes children to enter their exclusive clubs.
    How many of their children are serving the country?, and not in a Political capacity, as they only serve themselves..

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Until the teaching profession change their ideology there will be no improvement. There is an entrenched view that academic success is elite, and anything elite should be trashed. When I was applying for universities, my head teacher told me I was intellectually arrogant for refusing to apply for a polytechnic instead of Cambridge. That is what needs to change, not dumbing down uni entrance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    //Big John the Red

    I've worked with Dutch, German and Japanese managers and the contrast is starling.//

    What, are they bird-brained?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Top universities 'have become less representative'

    Maybe that is because not everyone from all walks of life wants to go to university. The guys from Dragons Den didn't go to university and there some of the richest people in the country now which shows that university is not the be all and end all of life

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    #118. While agreeing it's the Tory way to protect/re-focus power & privilege on a ruling elite, this story relates more to the Blair 'middle way' of trying to keep everyone happy - conservative with a small "c".

    New Labour, though, was a reaction to the public's acceptance of Tory privatisation and 'free' market 'values'; there's a saying in politics that the public aren't stupid - it's a lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Lets face it, of course the top Universities ahve become less socially diverse.

    Rent has gone up, fees have gone up and people are realising that unless you have a good degree from a top light university you are essentially wasting your time in the job market.

    A 2:2 from a barely recognisable insitiute sadly means that you have wasted 3 or 4 years of your life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    "131.Trout Mask Replica
    all of us, irrespective of backgrounds and origins, should have the opportunity to achieve the potential of our talents & abilities?"

    We do. Ask David Beckham or Alan Sugar if their working class east London upbringing stopped them getting on.

    Of course, people can also use their background as an excuse. Especally if the Left keep telling them they can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    130. JPublic

    I merely pointed out 2 facts:
    1) more Grammars were converted to comprehensives under the 3.5 year Heath Administration than the 11 years of the Wilson/Callaghan administrations
    2) The Tories turned the Polytechnics into universities

    Pointing out these two facts implies nothing about my political leanings, only that the education system we have now came about under both parties.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    131.Trout Mask Replica
    Do you disagree with the principle that all of us, ..should have the opportunity to achieve the potential of our talents & abilities?

    Few would disagree in principle, it's how to achieve it that differs. There are more opportunities than ever today and this has been achieved by gradual cultural change, deliberate social engineering faovoured by the left always fails.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    131Trout Mask Replica
    Do you disagree with the principle that all of us......should have the opportunity to achieve the potential of our talents & abilities?"

    But only if we want to. You are talking ideologist theory again. Labour created a generation that were lead to believe that they must get a Uni degree and anything less was worthless. Now they are in huge debt struggling financially.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Has nobody bothered to ask why most of our successful industries are now run and owned by Johnny Foreigner!

    Could the chronically bad management displayed in the UK be down to our divisive education system?

    "You Grammar school lads are here to control the plebs."?

    I've worked with Dutch, German and Japanese managers and the contrast is starling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Conservatives = Elitist.

    Always have. Always will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Universities only measure the outcome of the education system, it is ridiculous to suggest that Universities should fix the problem of social imbalance. I work for a major UK university and we are already dumbing down considerably to meet our diversity targets.
    To allow students to achieve their best, they need to be taught at their level - and that does mean selection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    The Social Mobilty and Child Poverty Commission is its full name and it's chaired by Alan Milburn. It was set up by Clegg. I wonder if they called the BBC direct to order them to the piece or if it was suggested via the Guardian? Reading the comments, even the left wing, presumably for whom these ridiculous social engineering pieces are written, are utterly sick of the BBC agenda led "journalism"

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    The Social Mobility Commission would say that wouldn't they.

    More twaddle for the gullible masses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    The education and exam results ... eroded over that time.

    Yes agree with this. Devalued. Opportunities available to all but lowering the bar hasnt solved it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    126 Big

    'As for Oxbridge, both political front benches are all Oxbridge PPE graduates, have never done a days work, have never actually run anything and we wonder why we're in a mess!'

    4 out of 5 of the top player (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Miliband and Balls) have been to private school as well.

    Tory 'v' Labour = Our posh boys are richer than your posh boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.


    Yes, Just like my daughter ;), but you have to have that in built desire to succeed, and when you are poor, it's very hard to keep motivated, so, as far as i'm concerned, that bit is where the parents come in to it, with emotional support and the 'you can do its'. I couldn't help financially, but I gave her as much emotional support as I could.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Also, the good unis would rather fill their coffers by taking rich foreign students who have to pay a lot more, thereby leaving less places for domestic students.


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