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Britain's top universities taking fewer state-educated pupils than a decade ago

Government’s social mobility commission calls for higher targets to close the ‘access gap’

Top universities have been warned they must change their “elitist” image after a study found that they are awarding places to fewer students from state schools and poor families than a decade ago.

Alan Milburn, the Government’s social mobility tsar, told The Independent  he believed the main factor in the “unacceptable” decline was that pupils from low income families feel the universities in the 24-strong Russell Group are “not for them.”  He said: “They have to do more to dispel any notion  that they are elitist.”

Mr Milburn believed the £9,000 maximum tuition fees introduced by the Coalition might be deterring students “in fear of debt” from applying to university but said the figures were inconclusive. He called on universities, schools and the Government to close the “fair access gap.”

In a report published on Monday, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission chaired by Mr Milburn, reveals there were 126 fewer students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds at Russell Group universities in 2011-12 than in 2002-03. When the exam grades of applicants were taken into account, there were 3,700 “missing” state-educated students in these institutions.

The commission calls for more ambitious targets to close the gap, saying that the number of “missing” students would be cut by only a quarter even if the top 24 universities hit their targets for 2016-17.

Mr Milburn, a former Labour Cabinet minister, acknowledged that universities are now more determined to make Britain more socially mobile. He said those outside the Russell Group had made“great progress” in admitting  more state school and low income pupils, but  leading institutions now needed to follow suit.

“The biggest factor is not tuition fees but more a feeling among low income kids that the leading universities are not for them,” he said. “It is as much about what the universities do to dispel that notion as about the kids and their teachers aspiring to them.”

He said America’s top universities had shown that “excellence and equity can be friends rather than enemies.” He warned the Treasury it would be  “premature” to lower the income threshold at which graduates start to repay student loans from £21,000 to £18,000, a proposal being discussed in the public spending review. “Fear of debt is a barrier for low income families,” he said. “Although the numbers are not as bad as people might have expected [after the fees rise] there are some grounds for concern, particularly the number of working class and mature students applying to university.”

Today’s report proposes  clear statistical targets to improve “fair access”; greater use of “contextual data”, such as postcodes and whether students’ parents went to university, in the admissions process and urgent action by the Government to improve the national scholarship

The commission says: “In contrast to the overall progress made by the higher education sector in becoming more socially representative over the last decade, the most selective universities have, overall, become more socially exclusive.”

The odds of a state secondary school pupil  eligible for free school meals being admitted to Oxford or Cambridge is almost 2,000 to 1 against. In contrast, the odds of a privately-educated pupil is 20 to 1, says the report.

Although the number of state-educated pupils entering Russell Group universities rose by 2.6 per cent (1,464) between 2002-03 and 2011-12, almost half the new places created at these institutions went to privately-educated children (up by 7.9 per cent or 1,426). The proportion of entrants from state schools dropped from 75.6  to 74.6 per cent over the same period, and among pupils from  less advantaged backgrounds it fell from 19.9  to 19 per cent.

The commission says one of the possible explanations is an “applications gap” in which students with the right A level grades do not apply to the most selective universities.

In the report, Mr Miliburn and his deputy Baroness (Gillian) Shephard, a former Conservative Education Secretary, say: “The blame game –where universities blame schools, schools blame parents and everyone blames the Government—must stop.”

Replying to Mr Milburn’s remarks about elitism, Dr Wendy Piatt, the Russell Group’s director general, said:“A huge amount of time, effort and resources goes into outreach work to persuade students, parents and teachers that our doors are wide open to all those with the qualifications and potential to succeed, and that all able and talented students can thrive at a Russell Group university, whatever their background.”

She accepted that more progress must be made but said under-representation could not be solved by universities alone. “This is an entrenched problem and there is no quick fix – it will take time to raise aspirations, attainment and improve advice and guidance offered to students in some schools,” she said.