selective universities
A HEPI report notes that English universities are moving at a glacial place in promoting fairer access to selective universities. Source: Shutterstock

It will take 96 years for highly selective universities in England to raise the participation rate for students from the least advantaged areas at the current rate of progress, according to a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

Last year, England’s higher education watchdog Office for Students (OfS) challenged universities to eliminate equality gaps in higher education within 20 years. 

This would mean equalising the rates of participation of young people living in the least and most advantaged areas of the country by 2037/38. By 2024/25, the OfS wants highly-selective universities to make “demonstrable impact,” reducing the gap in participation between the most and least represented groups for 18- and 19-year olds. 

However, the report notes that in 2017/18, only 5.2 percent of 18-to-30-year olds from the least advantaged areas entered highly selective universities compared to 25 percent from the most advantaged areas. 

Without faster progress, the HEPI report said it would take 96 years – or in year 2113/14 – for participation rates to improve.

“Another way of looking at this is that the universities would need to improve rates of progress at least five-fold to meet the OfS’s aspirations,” the report said.

“The figures suggest an extra 19,400 18-year old students from the least advantaged areas would need to enrol each year at highly-selective universities to equal the current participation rate of 18-year olds from the most advantaged areas.18 That is only a little less than the entire undergraduate population across all years of study at Oxbridge.”

Based on HEPI’s forecasts, meeting OfS’ goals would require more students to be admitted without traditional academic qualifications. 

To ensure young people in all areas enjoy the same current participation rate as the most advantaged, HEPI says there would need to be a doubling in the number of places at highly-selective universities to 170,000.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said while trends are moving in the right direction, progress has been very slow.

“The OfS is right to keep the pressure on and this new report will hopefully encourage an evidence-informed debate on how to speed up the process,” he said.


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Without faster progress, the HEPI report said it would take 96 years for participation rates to improve. Source: Shutterstock

The report’s recommendations for English universities to raise the participation rate for students from the least advantaged areas include:

  • Follow the example of Scottish universities in producing two published offers for degree courses: a standard entry requirement and a minimum entry requirement of up to three A-Level grades lower across three A-Levels (so BBB compared with AAA, for example). 
  • Use random allocation of places or lotteries for students over a certain threshold of A-Level grades. This is the fairest way of selecting equally-qualified candidates for degree courses. 
  • The OfS should challenge highly-selective universities to expand student numbers in innovative ways to diversify their intakes, including more degree apprenticeships, foundation years and courses for part-time and mature learners. 

Lee Elliot Major, a Professor in Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and the lead author of the report, said: “Current progress on fairer access to our most selective universities is glacially slow. The time has come for a simpler, more transparent, consistent and honest system of university admissions, recognising that A-Level grades and our system of predicted grades, are no longer the gold standard of entry.”

Meanwhile, Dr Pallavi Banerjee, report co-author and Senior Lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter, highlighted the need for a fundamental shift in culture, adding that universities need to reflect on the needs of students from a range of backgrounds, from extra-curricular activities to lectures and tutorials. 

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