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Breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group
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Responding to the DfE announcement on new plans to improve student outcomes, and the Sutton Trust and IFS report on universities and social mobility,

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group, said:

“Our universities are working hard to ensure all students have the opportunity to access the benefits of an excellent higher education in the UK. The proportion of 18-year-olds from some of the most disadvantaged areas entering English Russell Group universities has increased every year for the last seven years and our members have set ambitious targets to build on that progress.

“Equally important is the support students from under-represented backgrounds receive once they get to university so they can succeed in higher education and later in life. The priority our members give to this is reflected in the levels of continuation rates, degree attainment and future earnings for under-represented students attending our universities and we are pleased to see the Government and Office for Students’ new Director of Fair Access and Participation underline the importance of this work. Our universities look forward to building on their existing work with schools and colleges, offering a range of options to young people, including degree apprenticeships, and supporting them through university to graduation and beyond.

“Breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone. Alongside ambitious efforts from universities we have also recommended a new national strategy to join up efforts by schools, businesses, Government and others to address disadvantage throughout the education system.”

At English Russell Group universities, 94% of undergraduates from the most under-represented backgrounds (POLAR Q1 areas) continue on their courses after the first year. This means that POLAR Q1 students are as likely to continue their studies past the first year at Russell Group universities as those from the least under-represented areas (POLAR Q5) studying elsewhere.

In total, 89% of the most under-represented students (those from POLAR Q1 areas) achieve a first or upper second-class degree at Russell Group universities. Although there is a gap in degree attainment between the most and least under-represented students, this has closed from seven percentage points in 2016/17 to five percentage points in 2019/20, and our universities have set targets to eradicate this gap over time.

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Across all English Russell Group universities, the ratio between the least and most under-represented students (those from POLAR Quintile 5 versus POLAR Quintile 1) entering full-time undergraduate courses fell from 6.9:1 in 2013/14 to 4.8:1 in 2019/20. If current trends continue, we can expect the gap in progression to Russell Group universities to close further to a ratio of 3:1 by 2025/26.

On average, over £11m will be spent on access and participation programmes at each Russell Group university for each of the next five years to help close the gap in progression between students from the least and most under-represented areas of the UK.

Russell Group universities are engaged in a very wide range of outreach activities designed to encourage successful applications from students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

  • Russell Group universities work with around 8,000 schools each year, running schemes ranging from mentoring, to summer schools, campus visits, sponsoring schools and providing CPD for teachers.
  • Through the Russell Group’s Advancing Access programme, which has reached over 2,000 teachers and careers advisers, we provide teachers with comprehensive information and advice about our universities’ admissions processes.
  • Universities also provide financial support to those who need it, including students from deprived backgrounds, care leavers and estranged students, in the form of scholarships and bursaries.  

Our universities have developed a range of transition support programmes to help students starting this year, as well as working together with The Open University to curate Jumpstart University. The Jumpstart University platform provides a range of free resources to support all students, whichever university or college they are enrolling at, to prepare for and successfully transition into their studies.

To ensure opportunity is spread evenly across every single part of the UK, universities and Government need to work together with other partners (including schools, employers and local agencies) to dismantle the obstacles faced by students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups in accessing higher education. In our report Pathways for Potential, we set out bold plans to address this including a new 10-year national strategy to tackle inequality throughout the education system, beginning right from the early years to improve social mobility.

Our recommendations included establishing a new Office for Tackling Inequality to ensure all Government policy supports the aim of this strategy, championing a joined-up approach between universities, schools, local authorities, charities, employers and relevant public services.

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