Top universities fail to attract students from poorer backgrounds

The United Kingdom’s élite universities are failing to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds despite making “considerable” efforts and offering financial support to offset the impact of higher tuition fees.

A report from the Office for Fair Access, or OFFA, says the top 20% of young people from the most advantaged backgrounds are more than six times more likely to attend a top university than the most disadvantaged 40%.

Overall performance on widening access to universities with the highest average entry requirements has been flat in recent years “despite these universities’ considerable efforts and investment”.

Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, said: “There must be further, faster change at highly selective universities, while for other institutions, where the entrant population is already diverse, the challenge may be more about ensuring that all students are appropriately supported during their studies and onwards towards their career goals.”

The numbers

OFFA, which monitors universities’ efforts to offset the impact of higher tuition fees, acknowledges that they spent nearly US$240 million (£140 million) more on attracting poorer students in 2012-13, when annual tuition fees in England trebled to US$15,400.

Overall, universities spent US$2 billion from tuition fee income and government grants on these activities.

The OFFA report says the extra comprised US$105 million on outreach work, US$51 million on financial support and US$82 million on a new scholarship programme.

Universities were allowed to charge higher fees if they spent an agreed proportion of the revenue on activities and bursaries aimed at attracting disadvantaged students.

Ebdon said: "The introduction of higher fees in 2012-13 made it more important than ever that universities and colleges work to remove the barriers to participation that may prevent talented students from entering and succeeding in higher education.

"When I talk about barriers to participation, I not only mean financial barriers, or perceived financial barriers.

"I am also talking about people thinking – erroneously – that 'university is not for me' or 'I won't be welcome there' because social, cultural or educational disadvantages have held back their expectations."

Main problems lies with top universities

While official admissions figures indicate that disadvantaged students were not put off university courses, there has been slower progress in increasing the number of poor students at the more selective universities.

The rate of increase had been "flat in recent years despite universities' considerable efforts and investment", Ebdon said. But he acknowledged this was starting to change.

The report says: “More recent data from UCAS [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] indicates an improvement since 2012-13 in the number of disadvantaged students being accepted to higher tariff institutions, which may indicate a more positive picture for participation at the most highly selective institutions.

“It is still too early to tell if this is indicative of a sustained improvement, but with significantly more investment in access agreements, OFFA would expect to see further improvement in 2013-14 and beyond.”

Answer not straightforward

The UK’s leading universities, represented by the Russell Group, believe the answer is not as straightforward as throwing money at the problem and fear the tightly prescribed access agreements compromise selection on academic grounds.

The Russell Group – which represents 24 universities, including 20 in England – criticised the approach on Thursday, insisting that government reforms “risk focusing too much on regulation and not enough on resolving the real problems”, including under-performance at school.

Wendy Piatt, the group’s director general, said that its members spent a third more than other universities on outreach programmes.

“Investment by universities alone cannot solve the deeper causes of the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds: underachievement at school and poor advice on the best choices of A-level subjects and university degree courses.

"It remains important that admission to university is based on merit and fairness to all candidates; any decisions about admissions must maintain high academic standards.”

OFFA also expressed concern at the continuing fall in part-time student numbers, which remained “worryingly low”.

This, the report says, is a “key issue for fair access because part-time students are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and because part-time courses offer opportunities for people without traditional qualifications, or who have to fit study around work or family commitments.”