The Prime Minister's comments on university access

11 April 2011

Commenting on the Prime Minister’s remarks about access to leading universities, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“We share the Prime Minister’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 simply not true that the number of state school-educated students attending leading universities has gone down. Since the UK higher education Performance Indicators were first established in 1997, the proportion of state school students at Russell Group universities has grown by 9.0%. This rate of growth exceeds the growth in the proportion of state school students across all UK universities, which was 8.6% in the same period. 

“The figure quoted by the Prime Minister about black students at Oxford University is also incorrect - it only refers to UK undergraduates of black Caribbean origin for a single year of entry, when in fact that year Oxford admitted 41 UK undergraduates with black backgrounds.

“It is also really important that politicians understand the facts behind access for students from non-traditional backgrounds 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. Too often an individual’s life chances are reduced at a very early age, well before they might even think of applying to university. As the Government’s recent Social Mobility Strategy noted, Higher Education plays an important role in social mobility, but many children from poorer backgrounds are significantly underperforming at school and this is the key reason why so few of them are gaining a place at a leading university.

"Russell Group universities are committed to attracting students with the most potential from all backgrounds, which is why we invest millions in bursaries and other initiatives designed to help the least advantaged students have the best possible chance of winning a place. Our universities will work hard to ensure that we continue to try all ways possible to attract bright students from low-income backgrounds but also to help them improve their academic achievement, which is the real cause of the problem.”

Notes for editors

  1. For a detailed explanation of the figures at the University of Oxford, see http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/behind_the_headlines/101307.html
  2. We currently invest over £75 million a year in access initiatives.  This £75m is the total ‘OFFA-countable’ expenditure on access, funded from additional fee income in 2008-09. A wide range of access initiatives undertaken in our universities that are funded from other sources, including donation and endowment income, are not included.

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