Top-charging universities admit too few state school pupils

Almost half of the universities that have announced plans to charge £9,000 tuition fees are not meeting targets on widening their social mix

Eight of the universities that have announced plans to charge a £9,000 annual tuition fee are admitting too few state school pupils, according to new figures showing that nearly a third of institutions aren't meeting targets for widening their social mix.

Most of the highly competitive Russell Group universities admit fewer state-educated children than their benchmark, which reflects the proportion of such pupils in the wider population who achieve the right entry qualifications, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority show.

At Oxford, 54.3% of its undergraduate intake last year went to state schools or colleges, compared with a benchmark of 70.2%. At Cambridge, 59.3% were state-educated against a 70.4% benchmark.

Of the 18 universities that have so far announced plans to charge the maximum £9,000 fee, eight are below their state school benchmarks including Bath, the latest to declare. At Bath, 74.2% of its students in the last academic year were state-educated compared with its 79.1% benchmark.

Universities will be required to direct more of their income towards widening access if they want to charge more than £6,000 a year.

MPs voted last year to raise tuition fees to £6,000, with institutions allowed to charge up to £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances". However, only a handful of institutions have announced plans to charge less than the maximum.

The figures also underline private schools' dominance of the most highly selective universities.

Ten of the 16 English Russell Group universities are substantially below their benchmarks, and there are just three – Liverpool, Sheffield and Southampton – which exceeded these targets. Outside England, Cardiff, Glasgow and Queen's University Belfast also did well on state school recruitment.

Overall, 88.8% of the degree entrants at all UK universities in 2010 were from state schools and colleges, up from 85% in 1998.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: "Russell Group universities are committed to broadening access so that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed at a leading university can do so, whatever their background.

"But it is really important to understand that the key reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the right grades at school. Students who come from low-income backgrounds or who have attended comprehensive schools are much less likely to achieve the highest grades than those who are from more advantaged backgrounds and who have been to independent or grammar schools.

"Worryingly, this gap in achievement according to socio-economic background is getting wider."

The figures published on Thursday also show that dropout rates at British universities have fallen from 7.6% of first year entrants in 1997/98 to 6.5% of first years last year.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice-chancellors said: "The figures show that the university sector continues to make progress in terms of widening participation. This is good news and testament to the hard work of universities.

"It is also encouraging to see improvements in retention rates. The UK still has one of the most successful completion rates for higher education in the world."

Universities UK plans to carry out detailed analysis of the impact of the new fees system on students from poorer backgrounds.

Dandridge said: "Much can still be done in ensuring that those students from low socio-economic backgrounds can progress to the most selective courses, if they wish to do so. It remains an issue that these students often do not have the grades required for the most selective courses and institutions. It is critical that the sector is given flexibility and support to continue its outreach work."


Jeevan Vasagar, education editor

The GuardianTramp

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