Russell Group chief blames schools for low numbers of disadvantaged pupils at top universities

The director general of the Russell Group has blamed schools for a drop in the proportion of disadvantaged pupils attending top universities.

Russell Group director general Wendy Piatt said “too many” children from disadvantaged backgrounds were underachievaching at school and receiving “poor advice and guidance”.

Dr Piatt was responding to analysis of the Higher Education Statistic Authority’s (HESA) social classes by the Press Association, which shows that seven of the 24 Russell Group institutions have seen a drop in the proportion of poorer entrants in the last decade.

Exeter has seen the biggest fall, down 2.6 percentage points compared with 2004/05. Others include Oxford (down 2.3), Cambridge (down 2.2), Durham (down 1.4), Imperial College London (down 2.5), Glasgow (down 1.3) and Queen’s University, Belfast (down 2.5).

King’s College London has seen the biggest rise in poorer students – up 5.7 percentage points.

The proportion of poorer pupils at Oxford and Cambridge is the lowest – at just 10 and 10.2 per cent respectively. Ten years ago, poorer students made up around one in eight Oxbridge entrants.

But Dr Piatt said: “While our universities invest a huge amount of time, effort and resources into improving the situation, they cannot solve this problem alone.

“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.”

On average, disadvantaged pupils make up about one in five entrants to Russell Group universities.

In comparison, disadvantaged students make up more than a third (37.5 per cent) of entrants to other UK universities.

Social mobility charity the Sutton Trust this month criticised Oxbridge for its admissions processes, calling them “confusing and complex“.

Further concerns were also raised about the impact the test will have on disadvantaged pupils after Cambridge confirmed it was introducing a “common format” admissions test.

In the last decade the proportion of disadvantaged pupils at Russell Group universities has risen, slightly, up from 19.5 per cent 10 years ago, to 20.8 per cent in 2014/15.

Lee Elliot Major, chief executive of the Sutton Trust, said: “It is good to see that the proportion of state school students entering top universities has risen over the past decade. However it is worrying that the access gap between those from poorer backgrounds and their more advantaged peers has actually widened at some universities.

“Today’s figures tell us that we need renewed and concerted efforts from Government, schools and universities alike to improve participation rates for the poorest students.”

Queen Mary University of London had the highest proportion with more than a third of entrants (37 per cent) from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ms Piatt added: “Ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds really matters to us and real progress is being made. Last year 1,760 more students from low socio-economic backgrounds went to a Russell Group university than in 2009.

“The number of students eligible for free school meals going to our universities has doubled in the last four years, and the number of black and minority ethnic students has increased by more than a third since 2012.”

It is the last time the HESA is producing data based on the social classes measure.


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