Students Facing “Perfect Storm” Which Threatens Widening Participation Progress

26 May 2023

  • New report highlights progress against 2020 commitments to boost equality of opportunity  
  • Senior university staff warn of pandemic impact and cost-of-living pressures 

Students from underrepresented groups face ‘a perfect storm’ of pressures that risk undermining progress towards ensuring everybody who wants to study at university has the opportunity to do so, regardless of background. 

The warning comes in a new paper by the Russell Group of universities which provides an update on the steps taken by its members towards meeting the commitments made in Pathways for Potential, published in 2020. 

The update released today (26 May 2023) is based on survey data and in-depth interviews with widening participation professionals and it found Russell Group universities have made progress against the five Pathways for Potential commitments, covering evaluation, collaboration, leadership, transparency and co-development with users.  

However, senior university staff warned students face new challenges, with the cost-of-living crisis and long-term pandemic effects threatening the success of access work, progression rates for students at university and graduate outcomes.  

To help its universities – and others – protect and build on the progress made in widening participation, the Russell Group has set out a number of recommendations, calling on: 

  • the UK Government to review its maintenance support for students in England; 
  • the OfS to allow English institutions the flexibility to tailor approaches to their local context in its new APP process; 
  • Governments across the UK to work with UCAS to provide more government-verified and pupil tracking data to universities. 

Commenting, Russell Group Policy Analyst and lead author of Pathways for Potential 2023 Chantel Le Carpentier said: 

“With the pandemic and now cost-of-living pressures representing a perfect storm for students from underrepresented groups, the commitments Russell Group universities made in 2020 are as important as ever. The fact that progress has been made over such a challenging period is testament to the commitment of our universities and the hard work of students.   

“Our universities recognise there is more to be done, and work closely with schools, colleges and others to ensure talented young people get the right kind of support at the right time. Government can help by continuing to improve the quality of data available to universities to ensure people do not fall through the cracks. 

“The cost-of-living crisis in particular risks setting students back, both through the application process and as they navigate their studies. Universities are doing their best to mitigate these pressures with major increases to hardship funding and other types of support, but they cannot do this alone. It’s crucial that the UK government reviews maintenance loans to ensure payments for students in England keep pace with inflation.” 

Notes to Editors

The Pathways for Potential 2023 report and executive summary can be found on our dedicated microsite here. 

The original Pathways for Potential report is online here. 

The five commitments Russell Group universities made in 2020 were to commit to: 

  1. Embedding evaluation across the full range of all their access and participation activities, as proportionate and appropriate to each individual activity.
  2. Building on their collaborative work, with each other and other institutions, to share information and reach more people and teachers in areas with lower levels of higher education provision or where fewer students progress to higher education.
  3. Ensuring ownership of, and accountability for, efforts to widen access and support student success sits with Presidents, Vice Chancellors and their senior teams.
  4. Providing transparent information on admissions policies to all applicants by ensuring this information features prominently on institutional websites and embedding it across outreach activities.
  5. Building on their work with prospective and current students from under-represented backgrounds as well as their teachers, advisers and/or parents to help develop effective access and participation initiatives.

Russell Group analysis shows that the 2.8% uplift in maintenance loans for students in England will leave students up to £1,500 short of the amount it would be had it increased by actual inflation (RPIX) since 2020/21.

The Welsh Government announced it will increase student maintenance support by 9.4% in the next academic year, while the Scottish govt announced financial support available to undergraduate students will rise by £900 from the start of the 2023-24 academic year.

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