Privileged students are 10x more likely to progress to a top uni. The Tab is campaigning to change that
Welcome to our 10x Campaign to widen uni admissions
This summer hundreds of thousands of students finished school in Britain and got their A-level results.
Imagine meeting two of them from opposite ends of society for a drink. One from the most advantaged fifth of school leavers, who was probably taught at a private school or one of the best-performing state schools, maybe a grammar. And one from the least privileged fifth, who has just graduated from one of the worse performing state schools.
Two 18 year olds, both educated in the same country, both of whom probably cheered on England in the World Cup and watched Love Island this summer, both with their lives ahead of them.
And then look at the likelihood of them going to uni. The privileged school leaver is 10 times more likely to get into a top uni than the person sitting opposite them, according to UCAS statistics. Ten times. 10x.
And that privileged student is just shy of four times more likely to progress to any university.
And in case you think that stat sounds bad but that it’s probably getting better every year – it isn’t. It’s actually got worse. The gap in entry rates between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged actually widened last year. In fact, equality of representation in higher education has seen no progress for three years.
And that’s not our assessment – that’s a direct quote from the last UCAS annual report.
"Over the last three years, no progress has been made in equality of representation between those young people most likely to go into higher education, and those who are the least." – UCAS
In fact, the biggest movement in the numbers over the past decade has actually been at the privileged end. Your privileged school leaver is 78% more likely to get into a uni now than they were 12 years ago, when these numbers began. Your state school student? Only 14% more likely.
Most people at uni right now know these things – maybe not the actual numbers, but the glaringly obvious thing behind the numbers. Especially at Russell Group unis, you can see it in the number of guys in fresh chinos on your first day or when you bump into people who get a weekly allowance from their parents. The obvious thing being: Britain’s top unis feel like private schools.
Why is this still going on? Why is there still such a vast gap between rich and poor, lucky and unlucky, in university admissions? Is it the tens of millions of pounds middle class parents are spending on private tutors? Do the universities need to spend more and get smarter in response?
And how have universities and their slick PR offices – the ones who hail "significant progress" when their numbers improve and blame everyone else when they don't – tricked us into thinking it’s getting better when it isn't?
That’s the subject of 10x – The Tab’s campaign this year into representation at Britain’s universities, named after the gap between privileged and not-privileged when it comes to getting a place at a top uni.
Over the coming months, we are going to publish stories from people who got in against the odds, and from people who clocked up dozens of hours with private tutors and interview coaches to get their place. Our local journalists are going to ask every university what they are doing to make their uni look more like Britain, in terms of privilege and race and disability, and why their current efforts aren’t producing better results.
Most pressingly, we going to ask them: how much are you spending to attract applicants from the least advantaged schools in the UK? And how are you going to make sure they get the offers they deserve?
We are going to examine the deep-lying issues that play into the numbers, like bad schools and disrupted homes and the explosion in private tutoring for rich applicants, as well as the ones that should be so easy to fix, like poor personal statements and bad course choices.
And we are going to send some of our readers onto the front line of this problem via our amazing campaign partner IntoUniversity, who have mentoring and teaching centres in some of the poorest communities in the country and who need hundreds more student volunteers to help.
And by the Spring, when this year’s UCAS applicants receive their offers, we are going to start asking: has anything changed yet?
We are looking for personal stories and news tips that help us illustrate this important topic. To be part of our 10x Campaign or send us an idea for a story, please email [email protected]
Why have we chosen this issue?
This country has some of the best universities in the world, but while thousands of students fly in from all over the world to benefit from them, whole parts of our country do not. Professor Les Ebdon of the Office for Fair Access put it really well: "Talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds are missing out on the life-changing benefits Higher Education can bring," he said. "This is a shocking, and avoidable, waste of talent which quashes individual opportunity and also has a detrimental impact on our economy and society."
This is a pressing social issue and it "goes to the heart of debates about equality and social mobility in the UK," as Dr Rachel Carr OBE, the co-founder and Chief Executive of IntoUniversity put it to The Tab.
The recent numbers on this issue have been bleak. Some people assume sufficient progress has been made because the universities are good at briefing out favourable numbers to the press about their proportion of state school students when they have a good year. And while unis obviously admit a much wider group of people than they did 20 years ago, the top ones still have a grossly disproportionate intake of privileged applicants.
Labour accused the government of a "total failure" to widen access to the top unis recently after figures emerged showing three Russell Group universities had seen the proportion of students from disadvantaged areas fall since 2010. Cambridge had 75 students from low-participation neighbourhoods in 2010. And in 2018? 75. Imperial's number actually fell between those dates, to 50 in 2018.
And recently when the Sunday Times made its first diversity league table and separated out students who went to non-selective state schools, it showed how much of the "progress" in this area has been based on admitting applicants from grammar schools, which are often dominated by the middle class. Just four in ten students at Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial went to comprehensives, academies and other mainly non-selective schools, whereas nationally eight out of ten go to those types of schools.
David Cameron set a target to double the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education by 2020 – it now looks like that will be missed.
Which unis are doing worst?
With some notable exceptions, the Russell Group performs worst on social diversity. Wealthy parents spend enormous sums to ensure their children get into these top unis, so it's not surprising they are the ones with overwhelmingly middle class intakes.
When the Sunday Times published its first list of the most socially inclusive unis recently, sixteen of the bottom 20 were members of the Russell Group. Oxford was found to be the least socially inclusive, followed by St Andrews, Cambridge, Durham and Bristol. Also in the bottom were Edinburgh, Exeter and Bath.
Many of these unis talk a big game about their "widening participation" efforts, and quote the impressive sounding sums they spend on "access". But just like you wouldn't congratulate a football club on spending a lot on transfers if its results were poor, we should hold universities accountable for their performance, not what they are investing.
Experts on this area often cite King's College London and Queen Mary as unis which have done well by prioritising the issue, investing properly in outreach and only using measurably effective initiatives.
What’s causing the problem?
The list of reasons why so few disadvantaged students make it into higher education is extremely long, and the finger points in every direction: unsupportive parents, bad schools, tough areas, unis not encouraging them to apply, expensive applications, summer courses giving posh students the edge, unis not making disadvantaged applicants "contextual" offers, and the list goes on.
Communities who traditionally haven't sent many young people to top unis don't have the knowledge of how the admissions process really works or they don't think higher education is for them. And the explosive growth in private tutoring in the past decade has made the problem more pressing, because the investment from middle class parents to ensure their kids get into top unis has significantly increased. It's hard for disadvantaged applicants to compete.
Because The Tab is based on campuses, our campaign will look hard at whether the universities are trying hard enough and what else they should be doing. We will also be speaking to school teachers and figures in government about what else can be done. And we will funnel as many student volunteers as we can to our campaign partner IntoUniversity, whose work tackles the problem much earlier, supporting children from the age of 10 onwards.
What can I do to help?
Firstly, by sending us ideas and stories and feedback about the campaign so we can make it as effective as possible. Please email [email protected] if you want to suggest something or be involved in any way.
Secondly, you can volunteer with our campaign partner IntoUniversity, who operate 25 centres in disadvantaged areas, supporting kids from the age of 10 right up to uni entrance with mentoring and after-school help. Their methods have been proven to deliver results. Dr Rachel Carr OBE, Chief Executive and Co-Founder, says:
"Anyone who is at university or has been to university should care deeply about whether this life-changing opportunity is available to everyone, regardless of socio-economic background. Current students and recent graduates are in a privileged position in this system; they have a unique understanding of the benefits of higher education. They are also in a position to help – for example, by volunteering as a mentor at one of our centres!"
Click here to volunteer at an IntoUniversity centre.