Top universities unveil plan to tackle social inequality

The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, says focusing on university admissions alone will not address the current embedded inequalities in the United Kingdom.

In a new report, it publishes analysis showing that unless concerted action is taken to address social, cultural and economic barriers which disadvantaged people face, the long-term targets of the higher education regulator, the Office for Students, to eliminate gaps in access to selective universities will not be met.

The analysis shows that even if student numbers from the most highly represented backgrounds are capped, universities would be required to admit large numbers of students with low grades and some with no academic qualifications at all to meet the targets.

The report says a wider drive is needed to tackle inequality, beginning right from the early years, and it calls on the government to introduce a new 10-year national strategy to join up efforts across departments and all relevant stakeholders to boost social mobility.

“A new Office for Tackling Inequality should be tasked with ensuring all government policy supports this aim,” the group says.

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “Educational inequality undermines the pipeline of talent into the UK’s world-class universities when we should be unleashing opportunities to anyone with the drive and determination to access higher education, regardless of their circumstances.

“Russell Group universities will continue to do their part, but breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone.”

Professor Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, who has conducted research into widening participation in higher education, said: “Our research clearly shows that socio-economic inequalities in educational attainment emerge very early in a child’s life. If we are to widen participation to higher education in the long run, it is vital that we do all we can to try to narrow the socio-economic gap in attainment earlier on in children’s schooling.

“A focus on admissions and outreach is important but without investment in the earlier period of a child’s life, we are unlikely to see as much progress in widening participation.”

The new report, Pathways for Potential: How universities, regulators and government can tackle educational inequality, follows a call from the regulator in England, the Office for Students (OfS), for the leading universities across the country to significantly reduce the gap between disadvantaged young people and their more advantaged peers taking degree places – or face possible financial penalties.

The OfS has set a target to eliminate the access gap to the most selective universities between students from the most under-represented areas in the country and those from the most represented areas by 2039-40.

Pathways for Potential sets out a series of new commitments Russell Group universities are making as well as recommendations for government and the Office for Students to “transform opportunities for disadvantaged and under-represented students”.

The group recognises that the COVID-19 crisis facing the country has the potential to affect disproportionately those students who are already disadvantaged, and says it has taken steps to provide targeted financial support and equipment to those in need, as well as to maintain its widening access programmes, including schools outreach, mentoring, parental engagement and teacher conferences.

As the country recovers from the immediate crisis, the report considers the actions which are needed to accelerate progress in widening access to university and supporting students from under represented backgrounds to succeed in their degrees and beyond.

Based on analysing Russell Group members’ experiences, views and studies from experts, and modelling of long-term access and participation targets, the report proposes a three-pronged approach to tackle inequality throughout the education system.

In addition to setting up a new Office for Tackling Inequality, the group pledges its universities to commit to applying five principles of good practice – evaluation, collaboration, leadership, transparency and co-development with users – to maximise the impact of their efforts to diversify their campuses and support students to fulfil their potential.

Regulatory incentives

It also calls on OfS – and equivalent bodies in the devolved administrations of the other UK nations – to ensure the right regulatory incentives are in place to support further progress. This means ensuring universities can pursue collaborative and long-term work designed to widen the pool of applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

Bradshaw said: “We have set out bold plans to address this issue, but we must work with government and as a whole society to level up opportunity for every community across the country.

“People and ideas will be fundamental to our economic growth and recovery after the COVID-19 crisis. It is more important than ever to tap into every scrap of potential and talent and ensure that nobody’s future is restricted by their background, ethnicity or income level.”

Responding to the report, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “It is more crucial than ever before that we tap into the brilliant talent that our country has to offer, and make sure that anyone who wants to, whatever their background or wherever they come from, is given the chance to go to university.”

Last week the University and College Union (UCU) warned that research shows that details from the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation about how GCSEs, AS and A levels and vocational qualifications will be awarded this summer, in the absence of exams being held due to the pandemic, will adversely affect high-achieving, socio-economically disadvantaged students because they are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their wealthier contemporaries.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “Research has shown that disadvantaged students fare badly when it comes to predicted grades, are less likely to be able to delay sitting exams and [are] worst-equipped to navigate any appeals system.”