Education & Family

Top universities 'have become less representative'

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

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.

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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