Almost three times as many young people with parents in professional positions attend university as those whose parents have “routine occupations”, according to a critical report to the Government.
Last year, Alan Milburn, who was then Health Secretary, was commissioned by Gordon Brown to investigate social mobility and access to the professions.
He set up a working group to guide the study, which included Madeleine Atkins, the vice-chancellor of Coventry University. The group looked at why the top jobs in the UK are often taken by candidates who went to independent schools, even though they account for only 7 per cent of pupils.
The report published on 21 July says access to leading professions such as law, medicine, teaching and journalism is often closed to students from working-class backgrounds. To tackle this situation, universities must build on their efforts to improve widening participation, it says.
The group found that the social gap is most acute at elite universities – only 16 per cent of students at Russell Group universities are from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
The report calls on the Higher Education Statistics Agency to produce more detailed statistics on the class background of students by university course to give a clearer picture of the effectiveness of money spent on widening access.
There should also be better tracking of the long-term destinations of school-leavers, it recommends, and it suggests that universities take more account of the social background of prospective students when they consider applications.
The report questions whether the £400 million spent in the past six years on widening participation is delivering “value for money”.
It finds the relationship between universities and local schools to be patchy, and the group recommends that the Government redirect some widening-participation funding to local partnerships between schools and universities.
The report says that the traditional academic calendar does not accommodate part-time and remote learners. The group believes that universities should promote entry throughout the year and transform the credit-based system to make it genuinely flexible.
It calls on the Government to overhaul the student fees and support system, again proposing “no-fee degrees” for students living at home – an idea that drew criticism when it was mooted earlier this month.
Other recommendations from the panel included introducing professional experience into all degree courses, allowing apprenticeships to count towards points on entry forms submitted to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and thus encourage access to university, and creating a system within which professionals and students mentor young people, allowing them to build the professional networks usually denied to working-class state-school students.
Mr Milburn said: “It’s not that Britain doesn’t have talent; to coin a phrase, Britain has lots of talent. What we have got to do is open up these opportunities so they are available for everybody.”