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11 August 2017updated 18 Aug 2017 2:00pm

The push for fairer access to elite universities shouldn’t just focus on Oxford and Cambridge

We should be just as concerned about widening participation at other top Russell Group universities.

By Natalia Bus

After receiving their A Level results this week, sixth formers across the country will be calculating what that row of letters means for where they can or can’t go to university. But for many the most prestigeous opportunities for further education were already out of reach.

The Times reported earlier this month that while the proportion of the most disadvantaged school children (those on free school meals) now going to university is the highest it has ever been, “the stranglehold of private schools on the best universities has continued”. Widening access to university is great, but without ensuring it extends to the top universities as well we will end up with a two-tier system.

There have been some signs of progress at the top. Last month, The Independent reported that “Cambridge admitted more black male students than Eton college pupils for the first time”. The story sparked the usual conversation about unequal access at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Both have been labelled, not unfairly, as “elitist” institutions. They have historically struggled to tackle a lack of diversity in their intake, each year admitting a below average number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minorities. 

But with the spotlight constantly pointed at Oxbridge, there’s a risk that the other top Russell Group universities face less pressure to imrpove.

Oxford is still the lowest ranked of the Russell Groups in terms of state school intake in the UK – according to figures obtained by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), only 55.7 per cent of its new students in the 2015/16 year were state-educated. However, other universities have a similarly disappointing number of state school students. Durham and Bristol closely follow in the rankings, accepting 60.5 per cent and 61.4 per cent state-educated pupils in the same cycle respectively. Cambridge was the fourth lowest ranking with 61.9 per cent. Those numbers look pretty bleak when you consider that only 14 per cent of students aged 16 and over attend an independent sixth form.

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The HESA figures also show that in addtion to Oxford and Cambridge, a further six of the 25 Russell Group universities ranked in the bottom ten for state school intake across the UK. As well as Durham and Bristol, there were Imperial College, UCL, Exeter, and Edinburgh. Not one of the 25 made it into the top ten.

But while all univerisities are under pressure to increase the diversity of their intake, the intensity of media scrutiny on Oxford and Cambridge appears to have encouraged them to put greater effort into programmes to do something about it. At each of the independent colleges that make up the two universities there are teams of student and collegiate staff in charge of arranging school visits and tours, as well as open and taster days to provide students from all around the country an idea of what Oxbridge life is like.

At university level, access and admissions officials work with initiatives like the Sutton Trust, Target Schools, and UNIQ, all of which provide free summer schools that aim to recruit students who wouldn’t necessarily consider applying to Oxbridge. 

There is also the work of the student union. Olivia Hylton-Pennant, the Cambridge University Students’ Union Access and Funding Officer for the upcoming year says some of the current projects include various programmes designed to encourage applications from a diverse range of backgrounds by showing potential applicants what life is really like at the university.

“As CUSU Access Officer, part of my work involves me liaising with colleges and the university to run the Shadowing Scheme. It requires months of planning and the colleges and university coming together to host students.” The Shadowing Scheme enables UK students from schools without a history of sending pupils to top universities to spend three days with a current undergraduate. It runs yearly, in January and February. 

“Last year, I ran a smaller-scale access event for black students (ACS Student Sessions) on one of the university open days and this was really well attended,” says Hylton-Pennant. “Feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive with most students stating that they were more likely to apply to Cambridge. At least two of the students who attended the event went on to receive offers from the university.”

While similar access schemes at Oxford University appear to be met with increasing success, efforts made by other institutions are nowhere near as ambitious or far-reaching. Each Oxford and Cambridge college is assigned a different target area of the UK for their outreach work, meaning that the universities reach out to students all over the country. Other institutions, however, focus only on surrounding areas. Durham’s Supported Progression Programme is offered only to students from the North East, Cumbria, and Yorkshire, while the Access to Bristol Scheme is offered only to pupils in Bristol city and the Great Western Summer School only for potential medicine students in London. Both universities work with the Sutton Trust to provide free summer schools. There is also Bristol’s Insight Into Bristol Summer School, but otherwise this type of outreach is far less numerous when compared to Oxbridge.

The 93% Club was set up last year by Bristol students to highlight what they feel is a gaping state and independent school divide at the university. Despite encouragement from its students, some of the university’s outreach efforts do appear to fall short of real action to deal with the issue.  

The Bristol Scholars scheme was set up last year to make the application process more accessible to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds across the city of Bristol by lowering entry grade requirements. The BBC reported that the scheme was for the university a way of gaining “a more diverse intake of students – as UCAS figures show that youngsters from wealthy backgrounds are almost four times more likely to apply to university than their poorer counterparts”. This initiative in theory could increase the chances of more state school students getting offers. As researchers at Durham University last year found, by the time they reach the age of 16, privately educated pupils are two years ahead of their state-educated counterparts, ultimately attaining better grades. Yet at the close of its pilot run, figures obtained by the Bristol student newspaper Epigram showed that a full third of the students accepted onto the scheme attended private schools.

The university has defended its actions, with Lucy Collins, Bristol’s Head of UK Recruitment, telling The Independent that “Bristol Scholars from independent schools who have been offered places had to fulfil one or more widening participation criteria in order to be selected.”

However, with the third lowest state school intake of any Russell Group, the findings indicate that the university’s program failed to widen participation among what should be its core target.

Fear of not being able to afford university is often cited as a key reason for many poorer students not applying to top UK universities. Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Durham are all expensive cities to live in, a burden on limited finances not at all helped by the Government’s recent passing of the Higher Education and Research Bill, which allowed UK universities to increase tuition fees in line with inflation.

At Durham, financial struggle is not met with much support, however. Durham for Accessible Education, a student-led organisation committed to increasing welfare and widening participation of minority groups within the university, says that not enough is being done to tackle disadvantaged students’ financial woes. George Stanbury, the President of the group, tells me that they’ve been trying to draw attention to the issue: “we’ve focused on dwindling bursary support – a student starting now, whose parents earn less than £25,000 a year, receives £2,000 annually in bursaries instead of £3,000 a year that a student who started in 2013/14 received.”

So far, the group has managed to secure a 10 per cent discount in university-provided accommodation for students with a parental income between £25,000 and £26,500. Stanbury says that despite this small success, “we want this bursary to be restored to its value in 2013, which also provided support to any student who qualified for the (now axed) maintenance grant. In 2013/14, those students received £1,000, whereas now they’re not supported at all.” Durham University’s support for financially challenged students appears to be diminishing, while tuition fees and living costs are on the rise. 

The inequality in access to the UK’s highest-ranking universities remains an intractable problem. Statistics for Russell Groups remain worrying and improvements are slow. Yet while Oxford and Cambridge may still have big issues to tackle in getting a broader range of students in, they are at the forefront of trying to do something about it. We need to ensure the rest of Britain’s elite universities face the same pressure.