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Elite universities 'as socially exclusive as ever'

Outgoing higher education policy director claims UK universities have made little progress in a decade

Britain’s elite universities are “just as socially exclusive as ever”, according to the outgoing head of one of the UK’s most highly respected think-tanks.

Figures show that - despite a major increase in students from disadvantaged backgrounds opting for university - the numbers obtaining places at leading Russell Group universities has actually fallen by, one percentage point since 2002.

Bahram Bekhradnia, the director general of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said in a farewell lecture tonight: “Unfortunately, here, there is little if any progress to report.

“The recent increases in participation by students from poor backgrounds - up 40 per cent in six years - have almost entirely been to the less prestigious universities.”

The Russell Group, which represents 24 of the country’s most elite research-driven higher education institutions, has always maintained the problem lies with the qualifications of students from poor backgrounds. They claim that too many of them just do not opt for the academic subjects that are likely to win them a place at a top university.

“Posh students go to posh universities because they do better at school and less posh students to less posh universities because they do less well at school,” said Dr Bekhradnia.

The social gap, he said, was illustrated at a rugby match between Manchester University students (posh) when they turned en masse to face their opponents from Manchester Metropolitan University (not posh) and chanted “Your dad works for my dad". Manchester University lost.

He said the differences between social groups was “a major disparity” in the UK’s claim to have a world-class university system.

On fees, he added that the present loans system was “philosophically, economically and socially untenable”. Non-repayment of loans could be as high as 40 per cent.

The only possible solutions were a rise in fees from £9,000 a year, a cut in student numbers or cuts to other parts of the higher education budget - such as research.