Number of state school pupils attending university drops despite efforts to widen access

'It is disheartening to see no rise in the numbers of university students from state schools'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Thursday 07 February 2019 20:14 GMT
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It is the first time since 2010-2011 that the proportion of state school students at UK universities has fallen.
It is the first time since 2010-2011 that the proportion of state school students at UK universities has fallen.

The proportion of students from state schools entering UK universities has dropped despite efforts to widen access to higher education, official figures reveal.

In half of the elite Russell Group universities, which are traditionally the most selective in the country, the proportion of students educated at state schools fell over the past year.

It comes despite an increasing pressure from ministers and the higher education regulator to boost the participation of young people from less privileged backgrounds at UK universities.

The figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveal that 89.8 per cent of UK university students in 2017-18 came from state schools – a fall of 0.2 percentage points on last year.

This is the first time since 2010-2011 that the proportion of state school students at UK universities has fallen.

Only approximately 6 per cent of schoolchildren in the UK are educated in private schools. And yet in fifteen institutions, the proportion of public school pupils is more than 30 per cent, the figures show.

In this group, which is dominated by small specialist institutions and Russell Group universities, the proportion of state school pupils is as low as 31.1 per cent (the Royal College of Music).

Among the Russell Group universities which saw drops were Exeter (a fall of 3.5 percentage points), Imperial College (a fall of 1.9 percentage points) and Durham (a fall of 1.6 percentage points).

Oxford and Cambridge were among the institutions with the lowest proportions of state school pupils – 58.2 per cent and 63.4 per cent respectively – but their figures improved on previous years.

The figures from HESA also revealed a 0.2 percentage point rise in the proportion of students from areas of high disadvantage where there has traditionally been low participation rates at university.

But still the proportion of students from these neighbourhoods is only 11.6 per cent. And at King’s College London, it is as low as 3.8 per cent, which is a 1 percentage point drop on last year.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is clear that universities and the government need to do more to widen access to higher education. These figures suggest that progress in this direction has stalled.

“The proportion of state school pupils at some universities is significantly out of kilter with the fact that the vast majority of young people attend these schools, including many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “Despite the progress on widening participation made by many universities in the past few years, it is disheartening to still see no significant increase in the numbers of students entering universities from state schools.

“This report highlights again the need for concerted action by universities and government alike. We need to see a renewed focus on widening participation so that all young people have a fair chance of getting into university, particularly the most selective ones.”

He added that poorer students should be given “a break” through contextual admissions.

Sarah Stevens, head of policy at the Russell Group, said: “Overall the proportion of state school pupils entering Russell Group universities has remained steady, accounting for around four out of every five students.

“Looking across the Russell Group, the proportion of disadvantaged students is also slightly up.

“But where individual universities have seen dips, they will of course take it seriously and we all want to see further progress.”

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A Universities UK spokesperson said: “Eighteen year olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England are more likely to go to university than ever before, but we know that a number of challenges remain. We are supporting universities in their efforts to build on work that has increased the number of students from diverse backgrounds in recent years.”

The organisation called on the government’s post-18 education review to make recommendations that support widening access – including targeted maintenance grants for those most in need.

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