Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission report - Higher Education: the Fair Access Challenge

17 June 2013

Responding to the report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“We want every student with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed at a Russell Group University to have the opportunity to do so, whatever their background.

“We are pleased the commission acknowledges how seriously the higher education sector takes the issue of social mobility and fair access.

“Of course more progress must be made and, as the commission acknowledges, universities are battling to overcome the fair access challenge.

“But the many and varied factors which lead to the under-representation of students from disadvantaged background cannot be solved by universities alone. Ultimately too few students from some state schools get the right grades in the right subjects and even those who do are less likely to apply to leading universities.

“Whilst we accept the commission’s figures it is worth noting that there will be some fluctuation in these numbers year on year and this has an impact on the figures. Looking back at the period from 1997/98 to 2010/11, there was an increase in the proportion of students from state schools enrolling at Russell Group institutions from 69.5% in 1997/98 to 74.7% in 2010/11.  

“Of course our universities have a role to play: as this report states many of our universities already sponsor academies and maintain regional partnerships for outreach work with schools - amongst many other things.

“But this is an entrenched problem and there is no quick fix – it will take time to raise aspirations, attainment and improve advice and guidance offered to students in some schools.

“All English Russell Group universities already set specific statistical targets within their binding OFFA agreements and there are many different factors which affect access, most of which are beyond the control of any one university. It would not be helpful for any representative body or bodies to set an additional, collective target.

“Russell Group universities already take a range of factors into account to identify those with the greatest academic ability and potential. However a ‘systematic’ or ‘blanket’ approach to the use of contextual information is problematic because it can rely too heavily on data which is limited in how far it can reveal a true picture of the candidate’s background.”

Notes to editors

  1. These figures relate to all 24 current members of the Russell Group, including those which have joined since 1997.
  2. In assessing the progress of universities, the Commission cites performance against the HESA benchmarks.  But the Russell Group has long argued these benchmarks are fundamentally flawed and do not give a full picture as we can only admit those students who actually apply and have the right grades in the right subjects. For further details on the HESA benchmarks on widening participation see:
  3. In 2011 the proportion of A-level students from independent schools who gained AAA grades or above was nearly four times greater than the proportion getting such grades from comprehensive schools. Only 12.9% of A-level candidates come from the independent sector but almost a third (32.3%) of those candidates who gained 3 A grades or better came from independent schools.   Independent schools accounted for 14.2% of A-level entries in 2011, but 27.3% of A or A* grades and 31.8% of A* grades alone.
  4. In 2009, only 232 students who had been on free school meals (FSM) achieved 3As at A-level or the equivalent.  This was 4.1% of the total number of FSM students taking A-levels, and less than an estimated 0.3% of all those who had received free school meals when aged 15.


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