Elite universities ‘going backwards’ on widening access

Figures suggest Oxford and Cambridge among seven Russell Group institutions with lower proportion of poorer students compared with 10 years ago

February 18, 2016
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Some of the UK’s most prestigious universities have a lower proportion of students from poor backgrounds now than they did 10 years ago, research suggests.

Analysis of official data by the Press Association found that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were among seven Russell Group institutions where the proportion of students from disadvantaged families declined over the past decade.

The study was based on Higher Education Statistics Agency records of students’ National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC), which is determined using applicants’ self-reporting of parental occupations, and it gives a picture of widening participation that contrasts sharply with analyses based on other measures, such as participation figures from different neighbourhoods.

The data show that the proportion of students with parents who were in lower-level occupations or were unemployed increased by 4.8 percentage points across UK higher education between 2004-05 and 2014-15, from 28.2 per cent to 33 per cent.

But across the 24 Russell Group universities, the average increase was only 1.4 percentage points, from 19.5 per cent to 20.8 per cent.

Oxford had the lowest proportion of students from NS-SEC classes four to seven, declining from 12.3 per cent to 10 per cent over the decade. Cambridge fared little better, dropping from 12.4 per cent to 10.2 per cent.

The largest fall, of 2.6 percentage points, was at the University of Exeter. Others performing poorly included Imperial College London and Queen’s University Belfast (both down 2.5 percentage points), Durham University (down 1.4 percentage points) and the University of Glasgow (down 1.3 percentage points).

Some Russell Group institutions fared better, with Queen Mary University of London increasing its proportion of poorer students from 32 per cent to 37 per cent over the decade, and King’s College London enjoying a rise of 5.7 percentage points.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said the figures “underscore a worrying lack of progress at some institutions”.

The data will add weight to concerns about the accuracy of neighbourhood-level data, which is often used to judge universities’ success in widening participation, particularly in access agreements signed with the Office for Fair Access.

Ucas research has shown that there are significant pockets of advantage and disadvantage in neighbourhoods, however they are classified, while a study conducted by the University of the West of England found that more than half of senior outreach managers believed that recruiting an advantaged student from a disadvantaged area was as good as or better than recruiting a disadvantaged student from an advantaged neighbourhood.

However, the NS-SEC data are not without their problems, as they are based on students’ answers about their parents’ occupations. Hesa is to cease publication of the dataset this year.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said that last year 1,760 more undergraduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds went to a university in the mission group than did in 2009, and that the number of students going to the institutions who were eligible for free school meals had doubled in the past four years.

“Ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds really matters to us, and real progress is being made,” Dr Piatt said.

An Oxford spokeswoman said that the university’s targets “focus on what are arguably more precise – but also more challenging – categories of disadvantage” and that the institution was “on track” to meet targets for enrolling students from disadvantaged backgrounds.


% Entrants from lower social groups (NS-SEC classes 4, 5, 6 and 7)

Biggest % point fallers in Russell Group over 10 years

Institution 2014-15 2009-10 2004-05 5-year change 10-year change
University of Exeter 15.5 15.5 18.1 0.0 -2.6
Queen's University Belfast 31.9 32.4 34.4 -0.5 -2.5
Imperial College London 16.2 17.8 18.7 -1.6 -2.5
University of Oxford 10.0 11.3 12.3 -1.3 -2.3
University of Cambridge 10.2 10.4 12.4 -0.2 -2.2

Biggest % point risers in Russell Group over 10 years

Institution 2014-15 2009-10 2004-05 5-year change 10-year change
King's College London 26.2 20.8 20.5 5.4 5.7
Queen Mary University of London 37.0 29.3 32.0 7.7 5.0
University of Nottingham 20.3 17.3 15.7 3.0 4.6
University of Southampton 23.1 20.1 19.1 3.0 4.0
University of Leeds 22.5 18.8 19.2 3.7 3.3
  2014-15 2009-10 2004-05 5-year change 10-year change
Total UK 33.0 30.0 28.2 3.0 4.8
Russell Group 20.8 19.3 19.5 1.6 1.4
Non-Russell Group 37.5 34.2 32.5 3.3 5.0

Source: Press Association/Hesa

% State school entrants

Biggest % point fallers in Russell Group over 10 years

Institution 2014-15 2009-10 2004-05 5-year change 10-year change
University of Exeter 68.0 68.1 72.8 -0.1 -4.8
University of Bristol 60.1 60.9 64.1 -0.8 -4.0
University of Glasgow 84.5 87.3 86.6 -2.8 -2.1
Queen's University Belfast 98.5 98.4 99.6 0.1 -1.1
University of Warwick 75.0 74.7 76.1 0.3 -1.1

Biggest % point risers in Russell Group over 10 years

Institution 2014-15 2009-10 2004-05 5-year change 10-year change
University of Nottingham 77.8 69.5 67.7 8.3 10.1
University College London 70.4 65.3 61.4 5.1 9.0
King's College London 74.9 71.3 67.1 3.6 7.8
University of Leeds 80.9 73.1 73.3 7.8 7.6
London School of Economics 69.0 70.8 61.5 -1.8 7.5
  2014-15 2009-10 2004-05 5-year change 10-year change
Total UK 89.8 88.8 86.7 1.0 3.1
Russell Group 77.2 75.2 74.0 2.0 3.2
Non-Russell Group 94.4 93.9 92.6 0.5 1.8

Source: Press Association/Hesa

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