Recent academic article

15 April 2016

Commenting on a recent article by Dr Vikki Boliver about our publication on the root causes of the under-representation of students from less advantaged backgrounds at highly-selective universities, Director General of the Russell Group, Dr Wendy Piatt said:

“Dr Boliver’s criticisms are simply not justified as all of the data in Opening Doors is accurate. They also betray a complete misunderstanding of the aims of the publication which explores why fewer students from less advantaged backgrounds go to highly-selective universities and how Russell Group universities are working to change this.

“All of the data we published in Opening Doors is correct. Ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds really matters to us. And the data in our report accurately reflects the progress that has been made over the last few years.

“The very first page of Opening Doors clearly states we ‘are far from complacent or content with progress to date’. We know there is still much further to go in solving the problem of under-representation of students from poorer backgrounds in higher education. And our universities are investing a huge amount of time, effort and resources, and developing pioneering schemes to help close the access gap.

“But they cannot solve this problem alone. There is a substantial body of evidence built up over many years which indicates that prior attainment is by far the key determinant of an individual’s chances of going to university. There are still far too many children from disadvantaged backgrounds underachieving at school and receiving poor advice and guidance. It will take time, commitment, and sustained action from a range of agencies to raise pupils' aspirations, increase attainment and improve the advice and guidance offered."

Notes to Editors

  1. The Russell Group Opening Doors report and accompanying films examine the root causes of under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and gives examples of what Russell Group universities are doing to help tackle the problem.
  2. In 2016-17, the 20 Russell Group universities in England alone will be investing £243 million in scholarships, fee waivers, bursaries and outreach activities aimed at the most disadvantaged - with additional investments being made across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  3. An IFS report commissioned by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in June 2014 found that poorer children are less likely to be high attainers at every educational stage up to the age of 18.
  4. Fewer than 8,500 students eligible for Free School Meals in 2010/11 took three A-levels. Of these students, only 546 achieved three or more A* or A grades.

Our responses to the specific assertions in Dr Boliver’s paper are as follows:

  • Dr Boliver says: “Seemingly large improvements in access to Russell Group universities for students from free-school-meal backgrounds are shown to rest on the dubious practice of calculating a percentage increase from a very low base.”

The number of students on free school meals going on to study at Russell Group universities has doubled in the last four years according to data published by the Department for Education in January. In 2013, of those school-leavers eligible for free school meals progressing to UK higher education, almost 12% (1820) went on to study at a Russell Group university, up from 7.5% (910) in 2010 (DfE:Destinations of key stage 4 and key stage 5 pupils: 2014). This is an entirely valid metric to use to report progress on improving access to university.

This is a considerable achievement in the context of the persistent under-attainment of this group of students. There is a substantial body of evidence built up over many years which indicates that prior attainment is by far the key determinant of an individual’s chances of going to university. Students eligible for free school meals are significantly less likely to achieve 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE including English and Maths than their more advantaged peers (33.1% vs 60.9% in 2015). They are also significantly less likely to achieve the EBacc than their more advantaged peers (9.9% vs 26.6%) (DfE:GCSE and equivalent results in England: 2014 to 2015)

  • Dr Boliver says: “Large apparent increases in access for those from state schools and colleges rely on the selective use of an unrepresentative base year.”

In Opening Doors, we used the first set of comparable data available (for the 1997/98 cohort of students) to reduce the impact of fluctuations in the data. We could have artificially chosen a year which produced better figures, but we were interested in looking at the long term change.

Widening participation is an issue which requires sustained efforts over a number of years, so it was right for us to consider the long-term change in these figures.

  • Dr Boliver says: “The representation of those from lower social class origins is presented in a positive light without any mention of the fact that the figure had been static for around a decade and that it compares unfavourably to the wider HE sector and UK population.”

At no point in Opening Doors do we say or imply that there is not a problem with equitable access to Russell Group universities. In fact, Opening Doors is designed to inform those working in Government, Parliament, the higher education sector and other interested parties about the underlying causes of this problem.

It is also surprising how many people, even those who are relatively well-informed, do not realise that a fifth of student body at Russell Group universities are from low socio-economic backgrounds or that more than three-quarters are from state schools. For example, a survey by the Sutton Trust found that more than 60% of teachers underestimate the percentage of students from state schools on undergraduate courses at Oxford and Cambridge – with a quarter saying fewer than 20% of students come from the state sector. In fact more than half of students on undergraduate courses at both Oxford and Cambridge are from state schools. (Sutton Trust:Summer schools aim to dispel state school teachers’ Oxbridge misconceptions)

The belief that there are few students from these backgrounds at our universities can in fact fuel the problem, putting off well qualified applicants from even applying.

  • Dr Boliver says: “Apparently encouraging statistics relating to students from low HE participation neighbourhoods are presented, but these concern applicants rather than entrants, and to all UK universities not just Russell Group ones.”

We never say or imply that this statistic applies just to Russell Group universities. In fact, the most prominent citation of this figure (on the second page of content) begins “Looking across all universities…”

It is equally valid and relevant to look at applicants to universities (as well as entrants). Low application rates from certain groups of students (particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds) are a key factor behind the under-representation of students from poorer backgrounds at selective universities. Russell Group universities cannot offer places to those who do not apply.

  • Dr Boliver says: “This article also highlights the failure of Opening Doors to acknowledge a growing body of statistical research evidence which indicates that one important barrier to widening access at Russell Group universities is that applicants from less advantaged social backgrounds are less likely to be offered places at these universities than comparably qualified applicants from more advantaged social groups. These studies receive no acknowledgement in the Russell Group publication despite being published in peer-reviewed academic journals by researchers working at Russell Group institutions.”

Opening Doors was never intended to be a comprehensive literature review of research on university access.

The allegation of bias on the basis of ethnicity presented in Dr Boliver’s research which she cites again here is not supported by the evidence presented. It was a speculative theory which overlooked other, more probable factors such as the predicted grades of applicants (as opposed to the actual grades they received), the specific course requirements for the subjects which students apply for, the quality of personal statements, and the results of admissions tests and interviews.

Furthermore, a more comprehensive and recent analysis of admissions data produced by UCAS as part of their End of Cycle review in January 2016. It found that black and minority ethnic applicants have offer rates at “close to expected values” at higher tariff institutions (which include those in the Russell Group), directly rebutting the research that is cited in this article.

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