Written by James Gallagher
Access to university education across the United Kingdom is slowly becoming fairer and more inclusive, according to new information released by the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Comparative annual data collected by UCAS reveals that the entry rate for disadvantaged students into top UK institutions, including Russell Group universities, has risen every year since 2011, with a record breaking intake in 2014. Whilst the gap between disadvantaged and better-off students in terms of access is narrowing, there is still a very long way to go.
Historically, social mobility and higher education has always been a contentious issue in the UK, with the numbers of working-class students at top universities appearing stubbornly resistant to change. Even in recent years, selective institutions have been unable to consistently deliver on widening participation. A 2013 report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission revealed that between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of state-educated students at Russell Group universities fell. According to the same report, the odds of being admitted to Oxbridge for a Year 11 child who was eligible for free school meals and attended a state school being admitted were almost 2,000 to 1. Contrast this to the odds of a privately-educated child being admitted to Oxbridge; 20 to 1. So what do UK universities in some of the most traditionally disadvantaged areas plan to do to increase widening participation and social mobility?
North of the border, the Scottish Government have taken a rather more interventionist approach to widening participation than England, linking admissions targets for disadvantaged students directly to funding. Although there has been widespread resistance by universities, the Scottish Government has funded over £30million worth of access schemes. The fact that Scottish students are able to study the first part of their degree in a higher education college, and then transfer into a selective university to finish the course has been praised for opening up doors for disadvantaged students.
To the west, the Welsh Government has laid out plans to establish a series of widening participation hubs in a variety of different universities in order to bolster the successful access scheme it already runs in Cardiff. These new hubs will be based on Cardiff University’s ‘Step Up to University’ scheme, which involves campus events, personal development mentoring, academic taster sessions and summer schools for disadvantaged students. The University also uses information about student backgrounds to guarantee both interviews and offers to those from disadvantaged backgrounds – although not at a level lower than for applicants from traditional backgrounds.
It is important to note however, that the actual number of disadvantaged students at selective institutions has always been relatively small, meaning that minor variations in raw data can lead to striking, and in some respects misleading percentage changes. The data released by UCAS, for instance, reveals that disadvantaged students were 30% more likely to enter a selective institution in 2014 than in 2011. Taking a look at the raw data, the number of disadvantaged pupils entering top universities has increased from 3,105 in 2011 to 4,040 in 2014. Against a backdrop of 500,000 applications to UCAS this year, the statistics begin to look less and less ground-breaking.
This slight increase in widening participation in higher education has been felt least of all by the most disadvantaged students in the UK. Between 2011 and 2014, only 0.9% more severely disadvantaged students were admitted to highly selective universities. In response to this new data, the ruling of the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) seems appropriate: “good, but could do better”.
The picture gained from these new figures is one of gentle progress, as top institutions begin to invest in a variety of inclusive access schemes. UK universities must aim to consistently improve on these results, and use this modest success to build momentum for investment in even more broad access initiatives. Whilst it may be hard to deny that access to UK universities is slowly becoming fairer and more inclusive, questions still need to be asked about whether this change is happening quickly enough, for enough people, in enough universities.