State school pupils still being 'ignored' by top universities

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Britain's leading universities are making slow progress in admitting more students from state schools and poor backgrounds despite a £3bn government drive to open them up to the most disadvantaged.

Only six of the 20 institutions which make up the elite Russell Group of research-intensive universities met their benchmarks for the proportion of state school pupils they admit. Overall, about three quarters of new undergraduates at Russell Group universities came from state schools, even though 93 per cent of children are educated in the state sector, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show.

At Oxford, just 53 per cent of new undergraduates came from state schools against a benchmark of 76.7 per cent, while at Cambridge the figure was 57.6 per cent against a benchmark of 77.4 per cent. Overall, the 87.8 per cent of young entrants to full-time first-degree courses came from state schools in 2006-07, compared with 87.4 the previous year.

One in four students will fail to complete their course, with one in seven dropping out with no qualification, suggesting that many are signing up for inappropriate courses.

Wendy Piatt, the director general of the Russell Group, condemned the benchmarks as "unhelpful and inaccurate" and said top universities should not be blamed for the "low aspirations... and underachievement at school" of poorer students.

In England, only 29.8 per cent of new entrants came from working-class families, a rise of 0.7 percentage points on the previous year. At Oxford, only 9.8 per cent of students came from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds, compared with a benchmark of 17.9 per cent, while at Cambridge the figure was 11.5 per cent against 19.1 per cent.

Dropout rates have risen, with nearly one in four students quitting before finishing their courses, the figures show. About 76,600 students, or 22.6 per cent, are predicted to quit the degree courses they started in 2005, up from 22.4 per cent the previous year.

And about 47,800 – one in seven – first-year students will leave university with nothing at all, neither transferring to another college nor gaining any other qualifications. But Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister, said: "Although there has been a slight increase in the proportion of full-time first-degree starters expected neither to get an award nor transfer, we still have one of the highest levels of student retention internationally."