Why isn't access for disadvantaged students improving across elite universities?

28 November 2018
By Luke Heselwood
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Enhancing social mobility has been high up the political agenda in recent years. In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May MP recognised the social injustices that still exist in Britain, arguing that “If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.” In July this year, the new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, stated that there is a “moral imperative” to ensure that everyone in society can succeed.

Political rhetoric has, however, not always been matched with significant change. Pupils on Free School Meals (FSM) are four times less likely to attend a top university and, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the gap between students from independent and state schools attending the most selective universities increased. As graduates continue to earn more than non-graduates, and with a high percentage of recruits in top professions coming from elite universities, the lack of access for disadvantaged students represents a stumbling block for the Government’s social mobility agenda.   

Today’s report on access to elite universities, Gaining Access: Increasing the participation of disadvantaged students at elite universities, shows that there has been little improvement since last year’s report.

The report focuses on 29 English universities that are either a Russell Group institution or, on average, ask for grades that are higher than the lowest Russell Group institution. The report has ranked these institutions according to the average annual increase in the proportion of disadvantaged students from 2012-13 to 2016-17 using POLAR3 data. The rankings provide an update from last year’s report which assessed the same universities from 2011-12 to 2016-16.

The data shows that over the five-year period, the average annual increases have been meagre. Among all 29 institutions, the average year-on-year increase has been less than 1 per cent. In addition, the report finds that the majority have consistently underperformed compared to their access benchmarks set by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

There are, however, some notable successes. LSE has retained top place in the rankings, in part because of its implementation of contextualised admissions, which consider a person’s background when assessing an application. The report shows that after LSE introduced contextualised admissions in 2014, it saw a spike in the percentage of disadvantaged students attending. In addition, LSE made significant progress against its benchmark over the five years.

Nevertheless, the use of contextualised admissions is not unique to LSE. Several of the 29 elite institutions have adopted contextualised admissions – albeit with no uniform approach. This begs the question: why isn’t access for disadvantaged students significantly improving across elite universities?

In part, this may be because on average, disadvantaged students are less likely to achieve the required grades to attend top universities in comparison to their more advantaged peers. More attention is needed to improve the pre-GCSE attainment of these students to ensure that they can apply to elite universities.

In addition, the report shows that across university websites there is no consistency detailing what contextual data is considered, or how it is used. For example, the University of Southampton sets out clearly what contextual data, such as FSM-status and attendance at a low-performing school, is considered during the admissions process. It also provides links to tools, such as a post-code look up, that help applicants to check their eligibility. However, at Newcastle University, its policy is unclear and there are no tools available to help students who are unsure if they meet the criteria.

This lack of consistency across elite universities can be hard for students to navigate. As disadvantaged students with top grades are less likely to apply to elite universities than their more advantaged peers, ensuring that admissions policies are clear is essential. The research calls for a new national campaign, similar to Better Make Room in the US, which uses a variety of mediums such as text alerts and online tools to assess financial costs to encourage more disadvantaged students to apply to university.

As today’s report shows, the commitment to enhancing social mobility in England is regularly displayed. Improving access to elite universities for disadvantaged students is one way of achieving this goal. It will require further collaboration between universities, schools and government to pool resources and share best practice. By doing so, it will give the issue national attention and ensure that elite universities stand a better chance of tackling inequality.

Dr Luke Heselwood is a Researcher at Reform and the author of Gaining Access: Improving the participation of disadvantaged students at elite universities.  

Among all 29 institutions, the average year-on-year increase has been less than 1 per cent. In addition, the report finds that the majority have consistently underperformed compared to their access benchmarks set by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.