It is a familiar claim: they went to nice schools and they just naturally gravitate to the Russell Group, bypassing many other excellent universities. So are higher education ministers less likely to visit former polytechnics?
The answer from some quarters of the sector appears to be “yes” after the latest information on university visits made by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and Vince Cable, the business secretary.
In answer to a parliamentary question, Mr Willetts revealed that of his 65 visits to English institutions since the coalition came to power in May 2010, 20 were to Russell Group universities - 100 per cent of the English members of the group of large research-intensive universities.
The coverage of other groups was not as high. Mr Willetts has visited eight current English 1994 Group institutions (73 per cent of members in the group), 12 in the University Alliance (57 per cent of its members) and six in the Million+ group of post-1992 institutions (38 per cent of its members). He has also visited 19 non-aligned universities, including several former polytechnics. The figures were given in response to a question by Labour MP Pamela Nash on 25 April.
Mr Cable’s list of 16 English visits reveals he has visited seven Russell Group universities (35 per cent of the group’s English members), two in the 1994 Group (18 per cent of its members), three in the University Alliance (14 per cent of its members), none in Million+, plus four non- aligned institutions.
Libby Hackett, chief executive of the University Alliance, said: “The diversity of our universities is a great strength of the higher education sector. We were genuinely surprised to see these figures, given the support we receive from the minister and secretary of state.
“Each Alliance university has an open invitation to government ministers to visit the exciting and transformational work happening. We would strongly encourage ministers to take up this offer.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, was more sanguine. It is “clear that both the secretary of state and the universities minister have been active in visiting universities across the country”, she said. “In our experience they both have an excellent grasp of the issues and challenges facing the sector.”
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “Since May 2010, Vince Cable and David Willetts have visited 81 higher education institutions in England - plus others in Wales and Scotland. There are 24 Russell Group institutions across the UK so the majority of visits have been made to institutions outside this group.”