Only six of the 24 large research-intensive universities within the Russell Group matched or exceeded benchmarks decided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on the expected intake of state school pupils last year, according to a Hesa report titled Performance Indicators in Higher Education 2011-12, published on 21 March.
The universities of Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield and Southampton, as well as Queen’s University Belfast and Queen Mary, University of London, were the only Russell Group universities to reach the benchmarks, which are formulated by a panel of experts from various higher education bodies including Universities UK, the Office for Fair Access and each of the UK’s funding councils.
Each university’s benchmark reflects the subjects taught there, the level of qualifications demanded and the age of its students, so that meaningful comparisons can be made between different institutions.
Once small and specialist institutions are discounted, the University of Oxford had the lowest proportion of state school entries of all UK universities, with just 57.7 per cent of young full-time entrants in 2011-12 coming from the maintained sector.
The University of Cambridge had the second lowest state school intake (57.9 per cent), followed by the University of St Andrews (58.7 per cent), the University of Durham (59.2 per cent), the University of Bristol (59.9 per cent) and Imperial College London (62.7 per cent).
These institutions also had the lowest intake of students from deprived areas, known as low-participation areas.
Only 2.5 per cent of Cambridge entrants came from these disadvantaged areas, as did 3.1 per cent of Oxford first years compared with a sector-wide average of 10.2 per cent.
Meanwhile, almost 99 per cent of students at Liverpool Hope University, Newman University and the University of Wolverhampton came from state schools, while about 20 per cent of their first years came from low-participation areas.
While the benchmarks are not used to decide funding levels and are not used as targets by Offa when negotiating access agreements, their use remains contentious among universities.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, criticised the use of “benchmarks”, which she said were “fundamentally flawed” because they “do not give a full picture” of admissions decisions faced by universities.
“We can only admit students who actually apply and who have the right grades in the right subjects,” Dr Piatt said.
“The benchmarks take no account of the fact that someone with four A*s at A level might not have a strong chance of acceptance on a very competitive medicine course, unless the A levels are in the required subjects.
“Nor do they consider whether able students actually apply in the first place – if they don’t we can’t offer them places.”
She added that the benchmarks were a “moving target” because if institutions with very different challenges improve their performance, the benchmarks for all universities became more challenging.
“Universities could exceed the benchmark one year but be below it the next year with exactly the same intake,” she said.
However, Les Ebdon, director of fair access, welcomed the “continued gradual improvement” on university access across the sector, as indicated by the new statistics.
“Clearly there is still much to do, but this trend is one to be welcomed,” he said.
He added that the figures would be useful as these students were the final cohort of students before £9,000 tuition fees were introduced at most universities.
“I will be particularly interested to see these statistics next year, when they will look at the make-up of the first cohort under the new system with fees of up to £9,000,” he said.
“Initial indications…are positive, and suggest that we will continue to see growth in the proportions of students from under-represented groups.”