Raising educational achievement early is the key to widening access to highly selective universities

19 May 2010

Responding to the publication of Sir Martin Harris’s report on widening access to highly selective universities, Director General of The Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt, said:

“Sir Martin’s report has highlighted once again that educational achievement is the key factor in determining whether a student will go on to attend a highly-selective university. Unfortunately, too few talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds stay on at school beyond the age of 16 to achieve the necessary qualifications to go to university.

“Too often under-achievement is fuelled by low aspirations, low self-esteem and an absence of good advice about higher education courses and institutions.   As the report has demonstrated, even those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have managed to achieve the necessary qualifications are less likely to apply to and attend 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 comprehensive schools.

“Effective advice and guidance about the benefits of attending a research-intensive university are essential to ensure that young people make decisions that will maximise their life chances. Subject choices are very important, for instance, and pupils need good advice at a young age about the best subject choices for entry to the most selective courses and universities.  Too few pupils are getting the opportunities or encouragement they need to opt for subjects such as science, maths and modern languages which are frequently required for entry to research-intensive universities.

“We welcome the report’s recognition of the considerable efforts that universities like those in The Russell Group are already making to raise attainment and aspirations amongst talented pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Russell Group universities offer a wide range of 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.

“Because the factors and decisions that determine entry to university take effect at the age of 14 or younger, our universities are increasingly focusing their outreach activities on younger students.  As the report states, were it not for the considerable efforts that these and other universities have made to widen participation and provide fair access it is quite probable that participation by the most disadvantaged groups would have declined during the recent period of increasing competition for university places.

“Our institutions are also constantly seeking to develop the most effective ways of identifying real potential.  All Russell Group universities take a range of factors into account to ensure that candidates are identified who have the most potential to excel on their courses, whatever their social or educational background.  They do not rely solely on exam grades, important though they are, but will consider other information on an applicant’s potential and achievements that is fair, accurate, relevant and robust.

Since the introduction of the fees regime, Russell Group institutions have greatly increased both the amount of financial support given to disadvantaged students through bursaries and the money committed to outreach and widening participation from additional fee income. This is in addition to the very large sums already committed to outreach from existing budgets. They constantly seek to identify and improve the most effective interventions and the most appropriate allocation of funds across bursaries and outreach activities. Most importantly, as Sir Martin’s report also acknowledges, additional resources will be required if universities are to extend current outreach activities and further enhance support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Notes to editors

  1. The vast majority of Russell Group universities use personal statements and references when assessing applications, and some also interview candidates.  Others take into account the average attainment of the candidate’s classmates, or any particular barriers the candidate may have faced during their education, such as spending time in care.  Any information about a candidate’s potential which is fair, accurate and relevant is welcome as our institutions are constantly seeking to develop the most effective ways of identifying real potential.
  2. In 2007–08 Russell Group universities spent £45 million of additional fee income on bursaries, scholarships and additional outreach activities, on average devoting 26% of their additional fee income to these priorities.  In 2007–08 the average bursary offered by Russell Group universities to students receiving a full grant was £1,500, twice the average level for the sector as a whole, and about five times the minimum bursary required by the Office for Fair Access.  Evidence shows that bursaries are effective at encouraging high-achieving students from low-income families to opt for a more selective university.

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