Blog: Diversity and ambition

29 January 2018

Our Chief Executive Dr Tim Bradshaw writes about the importance of giving young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to study at university.

For our economy and society to thrive we need to unlock, and draw on, all the potential talent available to the UK. That means doing our very best to ensure those with the potential to succeed get access to the chances they need, be that at university, college or in employment and the professions. It also means ensuring the UK nurtures potential right from the start. And that means engaging all young people, no matter what their background, so they have the aspiration to succeed alongside the support to attain the qualifications, skills and experience they need for the future.

Universities have a significant role to play here sitting, as they do at least for many young people, at a time of life between school and longer-term careers. There is a wider issue here though about life-long learning and the ability of individuals to access and re-access higher education throughout their lifetime. This is something the Government’s post-18 education review will need to consider.


It is critically important that students from all backgrounds should have equal opportunities to access the benefits of higher education. There is, however, no silver bullet to achieve this.

Effective approaches to widening participation and student success must take account of what works in different contexts including location, demography of the student cohort and institutional mission. We need a balanced approach, one which addresses the full range of barriers under-represented students face in progressing to higher education, and in succeeding on their courses.

Gaps in prior attainment by socio-economic background and ethnicity persist, and students from backgrounds under-represented in higher education are less likely to choose an academic route at all. And the reality is that universities can’t take people if they don’t apply in the first place.

There is also evidence to suggest that state school and black and minority ethnic (BAME) students are likely to choose more over-subscribed courses, and that too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds are choosing the right A-levels to increase their chances of success in applying to selective institutions and courses.

Universities recognise these challenges and invest significant funds in widening access. In 2018/19, the Russell Group universities in England will invest £270 million, with additional investments made in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To help raise attainment, they provide mentoring, support after-school and homework clubs, and hold talks, workshops and summer schools. They work with more than 8,000 schools across the country, supporting hundreds of thousands of pupils to raise aspirations as well as attainment. Russell Group universities are also behind the Advancing Access initiative, which provides online advice and guidance for teachers in preparing students to apply to university.

Students also receive support at our universities through bursaries and grants, and with pastoral care to help them progress in their studies. Newcastle University’s PARTNERS programme, for example, provides bursaries for disadvantaged students to support them in getting access to work experience. At the University of Birmingham, there is a well-established BME mentoring programme. While at Queen Mary University London, they are pioneering a model of undergraduate education in which opportunities to develop social capital and employability skills are embedded into all degree programmes and for all students.

Our members’ efforts are starting to pay off – while total acceptances to Russell Group universities rose by around 16% over 5 years, the number of successful applicants from among those who were entitled to free school meals increased by 170%; the number of black students increased by 78%, Asian students by 34% and mixed ethnicity students by 52%.

The latest UCAS data shows that acceptances at Russell Group universities from the POLAR3 quintile 1 (most disadvantaged) group have increased every year since 2011, and at a significantly faster rate than quintile 5 (least disadvantaged) acceptances – up 56% over the period. This includes an 8.2% increase in 2017 while quintile 5 acceptances only increased by 1.1%. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are also much less likely to drop out of a Russell Group university than they are from other universities.

But, we want to make further, faster progress. Significant sums of money are invested in widening access to university, and so there must be robust evaluation of programmes to ensure this money is being spent in the right place. This is supported by the sharing of good practice among our members and is something we are eager to see being developed even further through the Evidence and Impact Exchange, which is currently under development.

Ambitious, long-term efforts are needed across a range of agencies to address issues of diversity and access. This needs to start in schools, continue through university and college and then on into the workplace and professions as well. For our part, we look forward to working with the Office for Students and hope it will continue to support universities in their efforts.

Previously published on the Reform thinktank website.

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