University access

Having access to leading universities is important for young people because they deserve every opportunity to succeed in life. It is important for our universities because we want the best possible students. And it is important for our society because we want to make the most of our young talent.

Our report Opening doors - understanding and overcoming the barriers to university access explores the underlying barriers that cause less advantaged students to be under-represented at highly-selective universities and look at how Russell Group universities are helping to overcome these.

Russell Group universities are wholeheartedly committed to ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds. Real progress has been made over the last few years in increasing the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at our leading universities. And once students reach our universities they flourish – drop-out rates at our universities are on average half that of other universities, and Russell Group graduates on average go on to earn around 10% more over a lifetime than other graduates.

But precisely because broadening access matters so much to Russell Group universities, we are far from complacent or content with progress to date. There is still much further to go in solving the problem.

  • In 2014-15 over three quarters (77%) of young full time first-degree entrants at Russell Group universities were from state schools and colleges. This figure has increased from 68.3% in 1997, when these figures were first collected.
  • Students eligible for free school meals (FSM) are more likely than ever to attend highly-selective institutions. In 2014 FSM-eligible pupils were 39% more likely to enter high tariff institutions than they were in 2011.
  • Looking across all universities, application rates from disadvantaged groups in England are at record levels. In 2004, demand from 18 year-olds in advantaged areas was 4.3 times greater than in disadvantaged areas. This had fallen to 2.7 times greater in 2013.
  • Around one in five first degree entrants at Russell Group universities in 2014-15 were from lower socioeconomic groups.


Barriers to university access

Our universities face real difficulties as they work hard to increase access and attract students with the most talent, potential and ability from all backgrounds.The key reason why too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds even apply to our universities is that they are not achieving the right grades in the right subjects at school. While there are many examples of good and effective careers guidance, too many students don’t get the right advice and guidance on subject choice, choosing the right degree course and on how to apply to university. It will take time, commitment, and sustained action to raise pupils’ aspirations, increase attainment and improve the advice and guidance offered. This is an entrenched problem and there is no quick fix.


What Russell Group universities are doing to improve access

Our universities are investing a huge amount of time, effort and resources developing pioneering schemes to help close the access gap. Next year the 20 Russell Group universities in England alone will spend £243 million supporting poorer students with bursaries and scholarships and reaching out to pupils, teachers and parents across the country - with further investments made by our universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

1. Raising attainment

Russell Group universities work extensively with schools and colleges of all types to support teachers to identify and build on potential – and to raise the attainment of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

2. Providing information, advice and guidance

The Russell Group and its member universities invest significant time and resources in developing and delivering high quality information, advice and guidance initiatives, which challenge negative perceptions and help raise aspirations.

3. Alternative routes to Russell Group universities

Not all students enter Russell Group universities through a traditional route, and our universities have developed a number of ‘alternative’ routes for students who may not otherwise meet standard entry requirements.

4. Student support

Generous bursaries and scholarships enable our leading universities to attract talented students from a wide range of different backgrounds. 

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