Universities voice concern over access targets for disadvantaged students

The UK’s leading universities would have to admit students with low grades, and some with no academic qualifications at all, to meet targets to eliminate access gaps over the next two decades, a report says.

The watchdog’s long-term goals to improve access for disadvantaged students to top universities will not be achieved unless a joined-up approach is taken to address all the barriers which under-represented young people face, according to the country’s most selective institutions.

A report from the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities including Oxford and Cambridge, has called for increased efforts to narrow the attainment gap earlier on in children’s schooling as it says focusing solely on university admissions will not address “embedded inequalities”.

It comes after the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, called on the top 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.

But modelling by the Russell Group suggests that their members would have to admit students with low grades, and some with no academic qualifications, to meet the OfS’s targets to eliminate gaps in access – even if student numbers from the most highly-represented backgrounds were capped.

The most selective institutions would be required to recruit all applicants from the most under-represented areas with three A-levels regardless of the grades they achieved by 2026 to meet the OfS target, the analysis suggests.

And by 2035, they would need to recruit all applicants from the most under-represented areas regardless of whether they have studied academic qualifications.

The report – which considers the actions needed to accelerate progress in widening access to university – calls for the Government to create a new Office for Tackling Inequality and launch a new 10-year national strategy to join up efforts across Government departments and all relevant stakeholders.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: “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, said: “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.”

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The University of Cambridge is one of the members of the Russell Group (PA)

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “High-ranking universities can and must improve access to disadvantaged young people, and they have made steps in this direction through approaches such as contextual offers.

“However, the Russell Group is right that this issue cannot be solved by focusing solely on university admissions and that a wider strategy is required to tackle inequality.

“This needs to involve both education policies, such as more investment in high-quality early years education, and social policies to tackle issues like poverty, the availability of secure employment, and support for struggling families.”

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said: “There has been clear progress in opening up opportunities to study at the most selective universities, but where you come from continues significantly to determine where you end up.

“There is still a long way to go before these opportunities are genuinely available across all parts of the country.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “Working with their communities, schools and colleges, our world class universities play a vital role in levelling up opportunities for everyone and in helping to unleash the brilliant potential across our country.

“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.”

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