Are enough state school pupils going to university?

Find out whether higher education institutions are meeting their benchmarks.

Why have benchmarks been introduced for universities’ recruitment of state school pupils?

Because the Government has decided to try to widen participation in higher education. In the past, private school pupils have had a better chance of getting into university than their state school counterparts.

Who brought the benchmarks in, and when?

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) has been collecting data and creating benchmarks on the number of state school students attending university since 2002. Hesa publish the figures on behalf of the Performance Indicator Steering Group (PISG), which is comprised of the higher education (HE) funding bodies, Government departments, HE institutions and other interested bodies.

And are universities managing to meet their benchmarks?

Overall, figures show some encouraging signs for Government attempts to widen participation. The figures, which cover 2005-2006, show that across the UK the percentage of state school pupils going to university has gone up from 86.7 per cent to 87.4 per cent. That beats the high of 87.2 achieved in 2002-2003.

What about top universities?

This is less positive. Only six members of the 20-strong Russell Group – which represents the highest-rated research institutions in the UK – meet the benchmarks for recruiting state school students. In addition, 16 of the 20 fail to recruit enough students from parts of the country where participation in higher education is traditionally low.

Which of the top universities are best at recruiting state school pupils?

Of the 20 top universities in the UK, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow, Sheffield, Southampton and Queen’s University Belfast reached their benchmarks. Cambridge’s figures were not included in the survey because it is currently changing the way it collects student data.

What about students from deprived neighbourhoods?

Again, in general this is good news, with the percentage of pupils recruited from deprived neighbourhoods going up from 13.7 per cent to 14 per cent, which follows a slump in the last two years. Only four of the Russell Group universities reached the benchmark on accepting students from deprived neighbourhoods though, with Manchester and Glasgow beating their targets and Imperial College and King’s College London just reaching it. Nottingham University (with 5.5 per cent of recruits against a benchmark of 7.5 per cent) and Oxford (with 5.9 per cent against 8.7 per cent) were the furthest behind.

Is going to an independent school an automatic ticket to university?

Not necessarily. The latest research shows that elite private schools are having just as much success as they always have in getting their students into university. However, middle-ranking independent schools are finding it more difficult to cope with the competition.

What the experts say

Opinion is divided when it comes to this question. We have asked a number of experts and students what they think about it.

The YES camp

Elspeth Farrar, director of the Imperial College careers advisory service and communications director of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services

The vast majority of higher education (HE) institutions are engaged in “widening participation” activities, encouraging increased applications from state school students, particularly those with no previous family history of HE involvement. These activities are paying dividends, but some sectors of industry and commerce are voicing loud criticism about the quality of graduates’ skills and ability, and the dumbing down of degrees.

Jane Disley, principal of Richmond House School, an independent, co-educational preparatory school in Leeds

There are enough state school pupils going into higher education, but the problem is that there is an element of social engineering, in that there’s a level of students at university who are not suited to this type of independent learning. No wonder we then find that these students drop out at 18 or 19, and even if they do finish the course they are left with a huge debt. It would be better all round if there was a wider choice of more practical studies that were not at universities, rather like the old apprenticeship system, in fact.

Andrew Trotman, warden at St Edward’s School, Oxford

Yes, there are, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. That’s why I am in favour of encouraging children to go to university and believe in the equality of opportunity. I applaud the fact that the Government has the will to encourage applications to higher education, but it must be matched with a genuine commitment to funding. I also think that universities must be free to select their entry. In fact, I favour Ucas applications free of a school name or postcode.

Sophie Williams, a sixth-form student at Helenswood School, Hastings

All being well, I’ll be going to Canterbury Christ Church University to study religious studies and sociology. Most people in my school year are going to university. Our teachers have been encouraging in terms of us applying – they know we are capable and they think it is such a great experience – and it was expected that most of us would go on to higher education. So, I’ve never felt held back from applying just because I’m at a state school, and that’s the way it should be.

The NO camp

Bill Rammell, Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education

Everyone with the talent and ability, whatever their background, should have the chance to go to university. More students going on to higher education are from state schools: 86.7 per cent in 2005-2006 up from 81 per cent in 1997-1998, an increase of almost 45,000. But it is true that you are still more likely to go to university if you have attended an independent school and, while our policies – school improvements and addressing financial barriers – are having a positive effect, we cannot be complacent.

Gemma Tumelty, NUS president

Despite the Government’s efforts to widen participation, evidence shows that the university admissions of state school pupils have had only a negligible increase. This debate cannot simply be about measuring the total number of state school admissions to all universities, but must also address where they go, whether they complete their courses and the quality of their experience.

Marc Zao-Sanders, director of Pure Potential, which provides state school pupils with advice about university

There is a large pool of wasted talent from students in the state sector who achieve high enough grades to attend the UK’s top universities, but do not apply to them. These students rule themselves out for a number of reasons: little or no family history of higher education, a lack of knowledge about the application process, fears about tuition fees and little encouragement from their school. Applying quotas at the end of the admissions process is not the answer. Instead, we should be making the applications happen in the first place by equipping students with the right information and confidence to make informed choices about their future.

Tricia Jenkins, head of widening participation at the University of Liverpool

Higher education should be a choice that students make. In some streets in the UK, eight out of 10 young people go to university; in others it is eight in 100. Higher education has a responsibility to show that university is an option, irrespective of where you live or how much money your parents earn.

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