There is a “strong case” to consider delaying the university application process until after students have got their exam results, according to a government report that criticises elite universities’ efforts to recruit and retain undergraduates from poorer backgrounds.
The annual report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission says that the prime minister’s target to double the proportion of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by 2020 is set to be missed if progress on widening participation is not significantly accelerated, and it picks out members of the highly selective Russell Group for particular criticism.
It says that half the 24 Russell Group universities recruited significantly fewer state school pupils in 2013-14 than benchmarking would suggest they should have done, and that more than half admitted many fewer working-class students than they should have done.
This means that there are an estimated 2,800 state school-leavers and 1,900 working-class children “missing” from Russell Group institutions, the report says, if the social mix of entrants is compared with the social mix of those with the right grades to enter.
The University of Bristol is identified as one of the worst performers, needing to increase its state school intake by 28 per cent to meet its Higher Education Statistics Agency benchmark, while the universities of Oxford and Cambridge would need to improve by 24 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively.
The commission says that efforts to widen access could be hampered by the abolition of AS levels because predictions of performance based on GCSE scores are likely to be more inaccurate, and will probably be most inaccurate for the least advantaged.
It therefore says that the debate about a post-qualifications admissions system should be reopened, not least because increasing inaccuracy of predicted grades might make the reputation of a pupil’s school more important in university applications, something that would again disadvantage the less privileged.
“There is a strong case to consider a shift to a post-qualification university admission process, despite the logistical challenges involved…The Commission believes that the new Office for Students should take responsibility for reviewing the evidence and proposing a solution before the admissions process becomes a block to opportunity,” the report says.
The report says that, on current progress, the prime minister’s target for widening participation is unlikely to be hit until 2025, five years late, and that the gap in higher education enrolment between the most and least advantaged areas will not be closed until 2067.
The commission, chaired by former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn, also criticises Russell Group institutions’ performance on retention. Of the 10 institutions that have the highest ratio between the dropout rates for students from disadvantaged and advantaged neighbourhoods, seven are members of the Russell Group.
However, all but three Russell Group members have an overall dropout rate that is below average.
Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group, acknowledged that there was “still more progress to be made”.
“Our universities have made concerted efforts over the last few years to spread the word to students that with the right grades in the right subjects, a place at a Russell Group university is well within their grasp,” Dr Piatt said. “Our student guide Informed Choices provides advice on the best subject combinations for a wide range of Russell Group university courses and the choices that will maximise your chances on getting on your preferred course.”