Response to Alan Milburn report

18 October 2012

Commenting on the Rt. Hon Alan Milburn's report on Higher Education, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said:

“We are fully committed to increasing the number of students we recruit from disadvantaged backgrounds provided they have the ability, potential and determination to succeed on what are very demanding courses. We will, therefore, consider the findings of this detailed report very carefully.

“Our universities already want to make sure they are not overlooking the brightest and the best and like Alan Milburn we recognise that poorer students are not as well represented as their middle class peers.

“But there is no simple solution to this complex problem and offering financial incentives to take students from disadvantaged backgrounds fails to address the root cause of the problem and may have unintended consequences. In addition, existing widening participation funding is already weighted according to how many of those students are recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“As the report helpfully acknowledges, the admissions gap at 18 reflects an attainment gap that starts much earlier and is caused by complex socio-economic factors. But by highlighting the attainment gap we are certainly not denying that we have a role to play. Russell Group universities are working with children of all ages in recognition of this reality, and investing in working with schools. But, of course, we can’t solve this problem on our own.

“Some of our universities already sponsor academies - but our links should not be limited to this: there are other valuable activities such as summer schools, conferences and other outreach.

“We offer millions of pounds in bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds which we know both they - and their representatives - value and it is something that we are asked to do by the Office for Fair Access.
“Of course we are always looking at how money can be better spent and we are happy to consider extending outreach schemes where their impact has been proven - particularly in the light of Alan Milburn’s recommendations. But it is problematic to expect universities to take responsibility for replacing the Educational Maintenance Allowance.

“Financial aid for students can be a useful weapon in the battle to overcome barriers caused by lack of information and preconceptions and ensure that students from all backgrounds are encouraged to apply for a course and institution which is best suited to their abilities, and will maximize their life chances.

“The experience of our institutions suggests they do have an impact on attracting applications and therefore improving access. But just as importantly,financial support improves retention and enables disadvantaged students to have equal access to the full experience on offer without, for example, needing to take on part-time employment. 

“A-level and equivalent qualifications are the key source of information about academic ability and key indicators of future success. But Russell Group universities already take a range of factors into account to ensure that we can identify the candidates with the most talent and potential to excel on our courses, whatever their social or educational background.

“Most Russell Group universities use personal statements and references when assessing candidates. Some departments also interview candidates or ask them to sit additional tests, particularly for the most competitive courses, to give the applicant a further opportunity to demonstrate their strengths or a real interest in the subject. Others take into account any particular barriers an individual may have faced during their education such as spending time in care.

“The candidate's academic success is therefore considered in a broader context, and admissions tutors are skilled at assessing applicants individually and holistically to identify real talent and potential.

“However, admission to university is and should be based on merit, and any decisions about admissions must also respect the autonomy of institutions and maintain high academic standards.”

Notes to editors

  1. By 2016-17 the 20 Russell Group universities in England will be spending £184.4 million on bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers aimed at the most disadvantaged, and £36.8 million on outreach activities, including working directly with schools and laying on access schemes and summer schools.
  2. The University of Birmingham has applied to set up a Free School.  The University of Bristol sponsors the Merchants’ Academy. Cambridge University Health Partners is a lead partner in Cambridge University Technical College (UTC). King’s College London and Queen Mary are both trustees of the St Paul’s Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets, along with the University of East London and the Institute of Education.  The University of Liverpool co-sponsors, with Granada Learning, North Liverpool Academy and is one of five co-sponsors of Enterprise South Liverpool Academy. They are also a partner in the new UTC which will be established in North Liverpool.  Nottingham University sponsors Samworth Academy and also Nottingham UTC. The University of Sheffield sponsors Sheffield UTC. UCL is the sole sponsor of the UCL Academy in Camden and they are also a lead partner in the East London UTC. The University of Warwick has a strategic relationship with the RSA Academy Tipton and is a lead partner in the WMG Academy for Young Engineers.

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