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Poorer pupils' access to elite universities slows

Call for new national campaign to boost the number of applications from disadvantaged pupils


Call for new national campaign to boost the number of applications from disadvantaged pupils

Elite universities are all but failing to increase access for disadvantaged pupils, according to a study published by the public services thinktank Reform. 

In the past five years, the average annual increase in the proportion of disadvantaged students at each of 29 elite universities has been less than 1 per cent.

"According to Ucas, more 18-year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are entering higher education than ever before, with an increase of 78 per cent since 2006 for the most disadvantaged," the report states. "Since 2014, however, universities have made little progress in narrowing the gap between those most likely and least likely to enter higher education."

The thinktank is now calling for a new national campaign to boost the number of applications from disadvantaged students who have high enough grades. 

Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that across the whole university sector, only 12 per cent of young full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds enrolled in 2016-17, a figure unchanged from the previous year.

Now, for the second year, Reform has ranked 29 elite universities according to how they have increased, or not, the proportion of disadvantaged students recruited over a five-year period.

The elite universities in the report are defined as the 21 English universities in the Russell Group and eight others that have equivalent entry tariffs to these universities.

LSE has retained its place at the top of the table increasing the proportion of students from disadvantaged neighbourhoods by from 3.4 per cent in 2012-13 to 6.1 per cent in 2016-17, an average annual increase of 0.675 percentage points a year.

The University of Newcastle moved from 27th place last year to second this year after the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas increased from 7.4 per cent to 9.3 per cent an average year-on-year change of 0.5 percentage points.

Universities spent £745.6 million on widening participation in 2016-17, the most recent year for which data is available, the report Gaining Access: Increasing the participation of disadvantaged students at elite universities states.

But the report states that the most advantaged students are nearly 10 times more likely to attend elite universities than their more disadvantaged peers.

And the report calls on universities to provide detailed breakdowns of their widening participation and access spending, to help understand which programmes are effective and to improve value for money.

It also recommends that schools raise the attainment of disadvantaged students before GCSEs and wants to see a different measure of disadvantage, such as free school meal status, rather than the current measure which looks at the area students come from.

Dr Luke Heselwood, report author and Reform researcher, said: “We haven’t come very far since last year’s report. Although we have seen individual cases of improvement, there has been no significant progress in improving access.

“Clarity over spending, a national campaign to encourage disadvantaged students to apply and a better measure of disadvantage would all help to make a difference.”

Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, which represents 21 of the universities in the report, said: “Addressing the barriers for under-represented students progressing to university is a complex and continuing challenge. 

!We recognise there are no quick wins or easy fixes but we believe this agenda is best understood as a shared social mission in which success depends on universities, schools, parents and government working together, in partnership.

“Russell Group universities are engaging in a very wide range of activities designed to encourage successful applications from students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds: from mentoring, summer schools and campus visits, to sponsoring schools and providing CPD for teachers.

"Our universities also use contextual data and admissions processes to identify candidates with the most talent, ability and potential to excel on their courses, whatever their social or educational background.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “In 2017 there were record proportions of 18 year-olds going to university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our reforms are continuing to open up access to higher education, and enabling students to make informed choices about what and where to study.
“We have introduced changes so that universities will have to publish offer and acceptance rates by gender, ethnicity and social background so the Office for Students (OfS) can take action if needed to drive improvements in access.
“But there is more than can be done. We want universities to look hard at data and their own admissions policies and work out what they can do to make sure they are open to everyone who has the potential – no matter their background or where they are from.
“Universities can only charge the maximum fee cap if they are taking genuine steps to increase access and participation. We have also asked the OfS to challenge and encourage more progress, particularly at our most selective institutions, through Access and Participation Plans.”

2018 elite university access rankings

Ranked by annual average change in the proportion of students entering from disadvantaged areas

1. (1) London School of Economics and Political Science

2. (24) University of Newcastle

3. (7) The University of Sheffield

4. (3) The University of East Anglia

5. (2) The University of York

6. (16) SOAS, UoL

7. (21) Royal Holloway, UoL

8. (9) Loughborough University

9. (26) The University of Warwick 

10. (17) University of Nottingham 

11. (10) The University of Leicester 

12. (13) King’s College London

13. (19) The University of Surrey

14. (28) The University of Exeter

15. (12) The University of Birmingham

16. (6) The University of Bristol

17. (18) The University of Bath 

18. (22) The University of Oxford

19. (25) Queen Mary, UoL

20. (23) University of Durham

21. (15) The University of Liverpool

22. (11) The University of Lancaster

23. (20) Imperial College London

24. (4) The University of Leeds

25. (5) The University of Manchester

26. (29) St George’s, UoL

27. (14) The University of Cambridge

28. (8) The University of Southampton

29. (27) University College London

(The figure in brackets signifies the position in 2017)




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