Russell Group committed to addressing real barriers to fair access

10 February 2011

Commenting on the Government’s guidance for the Office for Fair Access on conditions for universities in England charging more than £6,000 in fees, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

The prior attainment gap

“We share the Government’s commitment that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination whatever their background has the opportunity to gain a place at a leading university. But it is really important to understand that the most important reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the required grades at school. By far the most effective way of increasing the number of students from low income backgrounds at leading universities is to help them improve their academic performance and give them better advice and guidance. Universities can and do help but we simply cannot solve these problems alone.

“The main problem is that students who come from low-income backgrounds and/or who have attended comprehensive schools are much less likely to achieve the highest grades than those who are from more advantaged backgrounds and who have been to independent or grammar schools. Worryingly, this gap in achievement according to socio-economic background is getting wider. Too many students don’t choose the subjects at A-level which will give them the best chance of winning a place on the competitive courses at leading universities. This is why the Russell Group recently published Informed Choices, our guide to post-16 study options, which should help improve information about how subject choices at school can impact on university applications.

“Even those students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the necessary qualifications are less likely to apply to the most selective universities than students from better-off backgrounds; pupils from top independent schools make twice as many applications to the most selective universities as their equally well-qualified peers from the best comprehensives. School attainment, advice and aspirations must all be dramatically improved if we are to remove the real barriers to fair access.

“We already invest over £75 million per year in initiatives designed to help the least advantaged students win a place at our universities. Universities will continue to invest in a wide range of outreach activities. We offer numerous summer schools, open days, special entry routes and access programmes to give students from lower socio-economic groups the best possible chance of winning a place and work closely with schools.

Contextual information

“Although A-level and equivalent qualifications are a key source of information about academic ability, Russell Group universities already take a range of factors and information into account to ensure that we can identify the candidates with the most potential to excel on our courses, whatever their social or educational background. The vast majority of Russell Group universities, for example, use personal statements and references when assessing candidates, while some interview candidates or ask them to sit additional tests. Our universities often take into account any particular barriers the candidate may have faced during their education such as spending time in care; academic qualifications are considered in a broader context. But admission to university is and should be based on merit, and any decisions about admissions must also respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.

Measuring success in improving access

“Any measurement of universities’ progress in improving access must be undertaken with great care. The investment of Russell Group institutions into outreach activities benefits the sector as a whole, with many students being inspired to study at other institutions as a result of our widely targeted work with potential candidates of many ages and backgrounds. We believe our universities have a role in helping all students to fulfil their potential, not simply widening access to our own institutions. 

“We welcome the Government’s guidance that institutions should set their own targets and measures of progress in improving access for poorer students. However, we are concerned that existing HESA widening participation benchmarks are unsuitable as targets against which institutions’ progress can be meaningfully measured. As Lord Browne found, the benchmarks do not provide a sophisticated enough picture of the student population actually qualified to meet the entry requirements of many courses. For example, they take no account of the fact that someone with 4 A*s at A-level might have a high tariff score but would not have a strong chance of being accepted on a Medicine course if these A-levels are in the wrong subjects. Moreover, financial penalties for not meeting these targets would be unfair and unhelpful to our aim of investing in ways to help poorer students win a place at our universities.

National Scholarship Programme

“We welcome the flexibility that institutions will have within the programme, to tailor scholarships to the individual circumstances at their own institution. Russell Group institutions already invest over £66million in bursaries and scholarships for students from lower-income families, and the NSP should become an integrated part of their wider institutional financial aid offer.” 

Notes to Editors

  1. In the last 15 years the proportion of A-level students at comprehensive schools achieving 3As or more at A-level has risen from 4.2% to 8.2%, while the proportion at independent schools has risen from 15.1% to 32.3% (source DfE).
  2. 29.92% of all students who got 3A*-As at A-level in 2009-10 were at comprehensive schools.  This was 10,237 students, which is 8.2% of the total taking A-levels at comprehensives.
  3. Comprehensives accounted for 46.7% of all A-level students. By comparison, 11,386 candidates got 3A*-As at independent schools, which is 33.27% of all 3A candidates in all schools, and 32.3% of those taking A-levels at independent schools.  Independent schools accounted for only 13.2% of all A-level candidates.
  4. In 2009, only 232 (or 4.1%) of students in maintained mainstream schools and known to be eligible for free school meals achieved 3 or more A grades at A-level.  (See http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmhansrd/cm100407/text/100407w0020.htm). (See also the Sutton Trust and BIS, Applications, Offers and Admissions to Research Led Universities, August 2009.)

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