Blog: widening participation

03 August 2017

As the Government publishes new statistics on widening participation in higher education, Russell Group policy analyst Tom Murphy blogs on the work that our members are doing to boost access to university:

Universities will soon be subject to new access and participation agreements with the Office for Students (OfS). There have also been some significant moves over the last year by Government to improve the levels of access to university for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

Last year’s report from the Social Mobility Advisory Group contained some key recommendations set to change the tempo in relation to university access.  The report recommended using an ‘Evidence and Impact Exchange’ to systematically evaluate evidence relating to the role of higher education in supporting social mobility.  Additionally, the report recommended that universities monitor their admissions, retention, attainment, and transition to postgraduate study and graduate employment. 

It is also anticipated that there would be an expansion of datasets to enable universities to assess their work on social mobility, including the development of indicators relating to socio-economic disadvantage.  These recommendations mean there is a need for universities to keep a careful eye on how they are making progress. Today’s ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education’ statistics from the Department for Education help universities to do that. 


Russell Group universities have a positive track record in improving participation for students from non-traditional backgrounds, and seeing those students go on to rewarding and successful graduate careers. It is a high priority for our universities that the most able students can benefit from higher education at a research-intensive university.

Our members are spending more than ever on widening participation. In 2015-16, overall spending on access included £40.8 million on outreach and £183.5 million on financial support for those who need it during their studies. In fact, 34% of additional fee income charged by Russell Group universities is being spent on access. This compares to 24% expenditure for all other English universities.

While there is still a long way to go, the result of this work has been substantial increases in the number of students from underrepresented groups who apply successfully to a Russell Group university.

We also recognise that a successful application is not the end of the process. Research from the SMF has highlighted the particular challenges that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face once they are in higher education. Our members provide targeted support for people who need extra help and have an excellent track record in retaining students. Just over 4% of young students from low participation areas drop out of an English Russell Group university after one year, compared to nearly 10% across all other universities in England.

We are determined to see students from non-traditional backgrounds apply, attend university, and get a good degree; if we can also help students to get a good job, so much the better. 80% of leavers with a first degree from a Russell Group university were in professional employment six months after graduating in 2014-15. Building social capital amongst all students is a key priority, particularly for those students who come to university from non-traditional backgrounds.

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) specifically asks that institutions invest ‘wisely’ in widening participation, basing their decisions on robust evaluation, plans and evidence and assessing the effectiveness and impact of activities.

Russell Group universities have been proactive in ensuring that monitoring and evaluation of activity is robust.  For example, the University of Newcastle has a focus on monitoring and evaluation to ensure resources are targeted to maximise impact.  The university’s evaluation plan implements the use of common questions to compare short term impacts across year groups, as well as using a range of quantitative and qualitative measures to evaluate all aspects of the approach to fair access in the long term.

Monitoring the efficacy of different approaches to widening participation and supporting student success is important. There may be no ‘quick fix’ to social mobility in the UK, but our universities will continue to work hard to ensure young people from every background have the chance to study at a leading university and fulfil their potential.

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