Sutton Trust report on higher education destinations

08 July 2011

Commenting on the Sutton Trust’s publication of higher education destination league tables for schools and colleges, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“While the Sutton Trust makes a welcome contribution to the debate on access, we are concerned that this report fails to explain fully why some schools have different degrees of success in sending their students to leading universities. By relying too much on UCAS and similar points data as a measure of academic achievement  (which will not show which subjects a student has taken for A-Level)  the analysis presented in Degrees of Success does not properly account for the specific grades, subjects and qualifications needed to enter highly competitive degree courses. Also, the report does not consider in sufficient detail which institutions and courses different students actually apply for. These factors explain many of the differences in destinations of students from schools with apparently similar levels of attainment. To make matters worse, even well qualified students from comprehensive schools are less likely to apply to highly selective universities than their peers from independent schools; we cannot offer places to those who do not apply.

“We welcome the fact that the Sutton Trust report confirms that the main reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the required grades at school. As the report notes, ‘attainment in A-levels or equivalent examinations is by far the biggest factor determining the chances of being accepted into universities.’ The report also crucially notes that another key barrier is poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree courses. This is why the Russell Group recently published Informed Choices, our guide to post-16 study options, which should help improve information about how subject choices at school can impact on university applications.

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our doors are wide open to students with the qualifications, potential and determination whatever their background. We urge schools to encourage their students to apply to leading universities, and work hard to help them to do so. This is why we invest millions in financial support and outreach initiatives designed to help the least advantaged students have the best possible chance of winning a place.”

Chair of the Russell Group, Prof Michael Arthur, spoke on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme about the report. Listen back to his interview here.

Notes for editors

  1. Progression rates based on average UCAS tariff points scored by applicants, for example, take no account of subject choice or individual grades. Someone with four A*s at A-level might not have a strong chance of acceptance on a very competitive Medicine course, unless the A-levels are in the required subjects. In addition, having the equivalent number of points does not necessarily imply that 4 A*s have been achieved, regardless of subject.
  2. We currently invest over £75 million a year in access initiatives.  This £75m is the total ‘OFFA-countable’ expenditure on access, funded from additional fee income in 2008-09. A wide range of access initiatives undertaken in our universities that are funded from other sources, including donation and endowment income, are not included. Examples include: Access to Birmingham, which provides study support, student shadowing and application help for disadvantaged students in the West Midlands; Sheffield’s Access to Medicine Scheme provides guidance and support to local students with an interest in medicine or science; and the University of Cambridge Area Links Scheme ensures that schools and colleges in every region have formal links with a Cambridge college. 

Policy area

Related case studies