Number of disadvantaged students at top UK universities falls despite attempts to boost applicants


Over the past decade, the UK’s top universities have seen a significant drop in applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite millions of pounds spent in a bid to get them to apply.

The overall proportion of underprivileged students enrolled at Russell Group universities, perceived as the UK’s most elite higher education institutions, has stalled significantly over the last 10 years, according to official data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Of the 24 universities that comprise the prestigious Russell Group, seven have noted a considerable drop in applications from disadvantaged students, including the world-reputed Oxford and Cambridge Universities, as well as Durham, Glasgow, Imperial College and Queen’s University, Belfast.

According to latest figures for the University of Glasgow, one of Scotland’s most esteemed Ancient universities, the percentage of students applying from state schools last year was 84.5 percent, down 2.1 percent on figures from 2004-2005.

Out of all 24 universities, Oxford enrolled the lowest number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, admitting just one in 10. Cambridge followed close behind, with underprivileged students making up just 10.2 percent of its total student cohort. Comparative figures show that ten years ago, one in eight Oxbridge applicants came from a disadvantaged background.

Queen Mary University of London accepted the highest proportion with 37 percent of entrants deriving from a poorer social class, followed by Queen’s University, Belfast, hosting 31.9 percent.

Approximately 17.2 percent, or one in six students from lower socio-economic groups pursued a higher education course at a Russell Group institution last year, compared with 32.1 percent, or nearly one in three of their more affluent counterparts.

In comparison, underprivileged students made up 37.5 percent, or more than a third of total entrants to non-Russell Group universities.

These figures come just weeks after Prime Minister David Cameron criticised UK universities for not doing more to widen participation and diminish inequality within the most prestigious institutions.

The Russell Group’s director general, Wendy Piatt, claims UK schools are to blame for the significant fall in numbers, stating that “too many” poorer students are underachieving at school and receiving “poor advice and guidance”.

“While our universities invest a huge amount of time, effort and resources into improving the situation, they cannot solve this problem alone,” she says.

“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.”

The decline comes in spite of attempts from the government and the institutions themselves to increase accessibility to higher education within the UK, particularly at the country’s most selective universities.  

Latest figures show that overall, there has been an increase in the number poorer students pursuing higher education in the UK, with 32.5 percent enrolled in 2004-2005, compared to 37.5 percent enrolled in 2014-2015.

But while ministers and universities repeatedly claim that the 2012 introduction of £9,000 tuition fees greatly improved access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, HESA’s data indicates that a significant majority are awarded places at middle or low-ranked universities and not the UK’s most selective institutions.

Last week, universities minister Jo Johnson advised the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) to concentrate on encouraging increased participation in higher education from ethnic minority groups.

“These figures underscore a worrying lack of progress at some institutions and underline how vital it is that highly selective universities redouble their efforts to reach out to students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said.

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