Russell Group under fire over class bias

David Jobbins

England’s top universities are failing to recruit across all classes and backgrounds, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said this week in a report entitled Higher Education: the Fair Access Challenge.

The report found that overall, while participation rates in the most disadvantaged geographical areas increased by 30 per cent between 2004–05 and 2009–10), those in the most advantaged areas are still three times as likely to go to university as those in the most disadvantaged areas.

It says the odds of a child at a state secondary school who is eligible for free school meals in Year 11 – the final year before they begin their sixth form studies for university admission – going to Oxbridge by the age of 19 is almost 2,000:1 against. By contrast, the odds of a privately educated child being admitted to Oxbridge are 20 to 1.

The report singles out the 24-member Russell Group of research intensive universities for specific criticism. "While there are some Russell Group universities that have become more representative over the past few years, overall their intake has become less socially representative, not more."

The Commission’s research reveals that:

  • Although the estimated number of state school pupils entering Russell Group universities increased by 1,464 between 2002–03 and 2011–12 (a rise of 2.6 per cent), almost half of the new places created at Russell Group institutions over the past decade have gone to privately educated individuals: the number of privately educated students entering these institutions increased by 1,426 (a rise of 7.9 per cent).
  • The proportion of entrants who are state-educated and the proportion from less advantaged social groups were both lower in 2011–12 than in 2002–03.
  • The proportion of young full-time undergraduate entrants to Russell Group universities who are from state schools has dropped from 75.6 per cent in 2002–03 to 74.6 per cent in 2011–12.
  • The proportion of young full-time undergraduate entrants to Russell Group universities who are from less advantaged social backgrounds has also decreased, from 19.9 per cent in 2002–03 to 19.0 per cent in 2011–12.

The proportion of state-school educated students at the University of Durham fell by more than 9 per cent over that period, while Newcastle and Warwick both experienced decreases of more that 4 per cent. University College London and the London School of Economics bucking the trend, with an increase in excess of 3 per cent. Edinburgh had the highest increase (4.6 per cent) while Oxford increased its proportion of state school students by 2.3 per cent and Cambridge by 0.3 per cent.

The report acknowledges that there is an 'application gap' – many state school students with the right grades do not apply to Russell Group universities. But the report suggests that in itself is not a sufficient explanation.

Damningly, it cites research showing that among those who did apply, "there is evidence of a state school 'penalty' in the admissions process equivalent to one A-level grade: that is to say, on average a state school student who applies to a Russell Group university would need to achieve one grade higher in their A-levels (e.g. AAB rather than ABB) to be as likely to be admitted to a Russell Group institution as an otherwise identical privately educated student."

Alan Milburn, chair of the commission: "There is widespread acknowledgement that the blame game – where universities blame schools, schools blame parents and everyone blames the Government - must stop.

"More importantly there is a lot of university action underway which will help make a difference. It is clear that there is an increasing determination on the part of our universities to do their bit in creating a Britain that is socially mobile. The challenge is to ensure that these good intentions translate into better outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds."

But Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said: "Of course more progress must be made and, as the commission acknowledges, universities are battling to overcome fair access challenge.

"But the 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."

The group accepted the commission’s figures, although noting that there will be some fluctuation in these numbers year on year, but Piatt said: "Of course our universities have a role to play: as this report states many of our universities already sponsor academies and maintain regional partnerships for outreach work with schools – amongst many other things.

"But 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.

"Russell Group universities already take a range of factors into account to identify those with the greatest academic ability and potential. However a 'systematic' or 'blanket' approach to the use of contextual information is problematic because it can rely too heavily on data which is limited in how far it can reveal a true picture of the candidate’s background."

Piatt said there were complex socio-economic problems which meant students from disadvantaged backgrounds all too often failed to achieve the right grades in the right subjects or did not apply to selective universities.

"Our universities put a lot of effort into trying to help solve these problems but we cannot do so alone."

In 2011–12 English Russell Group universities spent £106.8 million of their extra fee income on bursaries. This represents an average of £5.3 million per university, with some spending as much as £10.5 million. Overall, this amounts to £2.25 million more per institution than the sector average.

  • The full report, Higher Education: the Fair Access Challenge, can be found here.
  • See the full list of Russell Group universities and how they rank in the Complete University Guide's League Tables.