Some of the UK’s most prestigious universities have been accused of painting an “illusory” picture of progress on improving access for students from poorer backgrounds.
Vikki Boliver, senior lecturer in sociology and social policy at Durham University, says that claims made by the Russell Group in its 2015 report Opening Doors: Understanding and Overcoming the Barriers to University Access are “not substantiated by the evidence”.
But the mission group said that the criticisms made by Dr Boliver, a long-standing critic of elite universities’ admissions policies, were “simply not justified”; and it said it had never denied that there was “still much further to go”.
In Opening Doors, the Russell Group said that students who were eligible for free school meals were, in 2013, “39 per cent more likely to win places at leading universities than they were in 2011”.
Writing in the journal Radical Statistics, Dr Boliver highlights that this relates to about 40 universities classed as “higher tariff” by Ucas, and that it was “highly misleading” to use a percentage increase when the entry rate increased from just over 1 per cent to just under 2 per cent.
Another statement said that the proportion of students at Russell Group universities from state schools and colleges “increased from 68.3 per cent to 75 per cent between 1997 and 2013”.
But Dr Boliver says that the entry rate had increased to nearly 75 per cent by 2002, so progress in recent years had been less impressive.
The picture painted by the booklet is “illusory”, Dr Boliver claims.
“The Russell Group’s claim in Opening Doors that ‘real progress has been made over the last few years’ towards widening access to Russell Group universities is not substantiated by the evidence,” says Dr Boliver. “What the data available at the time Opening Doors was being prepared shows is that there had been no real progress towards widening participation at Russell Group universities for at least the last decade.”
Wendy Piatt, the mission group’s director general, said that Opening Doors demonstrated that prior attainment was the primary reason for access inequality, and that Dr Boliver had shown a “complete misunderstanding” of this.
“All of the data we published in Opening Doors is factually correct,” Dr Piatt said. “Ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds really matters to us. And the data in our report accurately reflects the progress that has been made over the last few years.
“The very first page of Opening Doors clearly states we ‘are far from complacent or content with progress to date’. We know there is still much further to go in solving the problem of underrepresentation of students from poorer backgrounds in higher education.”