Top universities fail to improve access for poorer students

England’s more elite universities have made scant progress in improving access or the performance of students from poor backgrounds over the past five years, the government regulator said on Friday.

Data from the Office for Students showed that none of the “high tariff” universities recruited more than 12.6 per cent of students in 2017-18 from the most disadvantaged parts of the country, although they represent more than 18 per cent of the 18-year-old population.

Imperial College, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and University College London had the largest imbalance between students from the most privileged and the most disadvantaged regions.

The universities of Hull, Northumbria, Lincoln, Sheffield Hallam and Exeter showed the greatest improvement since 2013-14. Two-thirds of all higher education providers failed to recruit 18 per cent from the poorest regions.

The analysis comes as the regulator scrutinises plans to improve access by some 50 higher education institutions in the high tariff group by August — universities which are allowed to charge the top level of £9,250 in annual tuition fees.

It will need to approve around 200 plans by the end of this year, endorsing efforts to increase levels of access, completion and post-graduation employment up to 2025. Plans judged inadequate can be approved with conditions or rejected, reducing the level of fees universities have the right to charge.

Chris Millward, the regulator’s director for fair access and participation, said: “The last two decades of work in this area have been about getting students in. The question now is what happens when they get there and what happens beyond.”

“Quite a lot of progress has been made in widening access but among the highest tariff providers the position has barely improved. The least advantaged are also the least likely to complete courses and there are gaps in good degree outcomes.”

He said there were concerns about black students failing to progress in their studies, and over the low levels of students and teachers from similar backgrounds from whom they could gain support.

Chris Skidmore, universities minister, said in a statement: “I want to see the access and participation plans that universities are beginning to produce increase the ways they are supporting under-represented and disadvantaged groups, so that everyone has the opportunity to thrive in higher education and go on to successful careers.”

A spokesman for Universities UK, a higher education association, stressed that it was important to put the information into context, but added: “Clearly further progress must still be made.”


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