Britain’s Universities Have a “Long Way to Go” Before They Are Fully Representative


A recent report by the government’s commission on social mobility has found that since 2002, the number of state-educated students attending top Russell Group has declined, with the report suggesting Britain’s best and most academically selective institutions have a “long way to go” in becoming fully socially representative.

Over the past decade, a rise in the number of university places has meant that while state-educated and disadvantaged pupils were entering top universities in increasing numbers, this was not translating into balance of backgrounds. As a result, almost half of the new places have gone to privately-educated pupils.

The report further estimates that annually 3,700 state-educated pupils miss out on places at Russell Group universities. Among those that have been accepted, the proportion of students from state-educated background and from less-advantaged social groups was less in 2012 than in 2002.18063

The report looks at individual cases too. For example, Durham had a steep fall of state-school entries of 9.2% across the decade. Southampton, however, is one of the few who have improved their standing, and has been praised for its outreach and generous bursary programmes.

To address the overall imbalance, the report has suggesting a lowering of grade requirements where appropriate, guaranteed interviews and stronger use of “contextual data.”

While there is an obvious problem of equal opportunity that needs to be addressed on many levels, are the suggested recommendations practical? One clear problem with the lowering grade boundaries is that by doing so, the calibre of the university could be affected. The Russell Group are in constant competition with each other, and the only way to come on top on the league tables is with high results, which is achieved with a strong academic crop of students. Some students may not do well at A-level or IB because they are simply not so academically inclined, and would therefore not suit degree-level academia.

As many of you I’m sure will agree, Southampton University is full of like-minded people, who want to learn and improve with other people who want to learn and improve (and go to Jesters). I think this general attitude is heavily due to the fact that we all got more or less that same grades to get in. If people are accepted despite achieving lower grades at school come into lectures and seminars, they could bring the quality down – how detrimental could this be to our own degrees? I always find that seminars with active participation with people who can intelligently challenge each other are the most enjoyable and the useful. Students who are unable to participate properly create an environment which is unfair for those who can, and for themselves.

But this gives rise to another question: are these students not so academically inclined because they received state-education instead of private, and could they actually end up flourishing at university in spite of this? Research has shown state-educated students tend to out-perform their privately-educated peers at university, though the reverse is often the case at A-level. Indeed, Southampton, who has increased the number of state-school entries by over 3%, jumped from ranking 20 in 2008, to 14 by 2011.

School students sitting their GCSE examinationsIn comes contextual data. This may mean top universities will take more seriously the extra-curricular activities you did at school, for example prefect, reading mentor, ‘form rep’, charity work, Duke of Edinburgh and so on. For disadvantaged pupils, this may also include care-giving and jobs done in addition to school to support the family. As someone who grew up through the state-system, I think considering all this can be very beneficial. I had school friends with tough personal circumstances who ended up putting their A-levels second. They still achieved decent grades, but not high enough for the Russell Group. Had their other activities and responsibilities been considered, and perhaps even their GCSE grades, I think they could have got into a top university and have done very well.

Interviews are another of the report’s recommendations. Interview-giving is a lengthy, time-consuming process, especially given the volume of applicants universities receive: interviewing everyone is probably next to impossible. Having said that, they are incredibly beneficial, as it gives a true sense of a person not transferable from a piece of paper. Someone’s enthusiasm and desire to learn and can really be sensed in an interview, even if their A-levels don’t reflect they same.

David Mendoza-Wolfson, VP Education Elect, welcomed the idea of more interviews, as they could lead to sensible flexibility for grade boundaries. However he cites the educational system as the main cause of the problem:

“It is clear to me that the fees method of funding HE is inadequate and off-putting to those from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds in this country. On that end, I support FAIR (, which I think would be a far better way of funding HE which would see an increase in applications from the poorest in our society. The problem here doesn’t lie with the universities but in schools. Private schools are offering a far better standard of education.”

Overall the reaction to the report has been positive, with British universities and the Russell Group welcoming its results. Hopefully this is a step in direction of true inclusiveness and equal opportunity.


History student with Mandarin on the side. Spent a year in China and a semester in Spain, plan to go back to China again after graduation. Opinion Editor at the Wessex Scene for two years.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. avatar

    Universities are devolved across the UK, so to say ‘Britain’s’ Universities would be inaccurate as they are differently operated. English Students have to pay full whack and are discriminated against by the British state. So no equality there.

  2. avatar

    Ironic words coming from posh boy David Mendoza-Wolfson…Conservative supporter who then goes on to cite ‘private schools as a far better standard of education”. No shit – what do you expect if a school get to spend whatever it wants?

    ….he then goes on to advertise FAIR – a venture he has a personal interest in.

    Propaganda Scene, Propaganda.

    Good Luck to all of you remaining at SUSU. He clearly sounds like a VP for all!

    David Mendoza-Wolfson

    ‘posh boy’? Why’s that, sorry? I am a Conservative supporter, and I’m proud of that. Private schools can’t spend whatever they like, they spend what they get in, the reason for their success is their ability to attract the best teachers.

    Yes, I did talk about FAIR, and obviously I have an interest in it, believing it to be the best way to fund Higher Education. If by ‘personal interest’ you mean that I stand to gain anything from it then you’re wrong because I earn nothing from it, I support it and push it because I believe it is the best way to fund HE.

    If you have a personal dislike of me then please do let me know, why not send me a facebook message or use your real name here? I’m happy to discuss with you any issues that you might have with me.

  3. avatar

    Students should get into university based on their grades and lowering the grade boundaries so that universities can hit ridiculous “equality” targets is nonsense. It’s insulting to state-educated students and detrimental to the university. I was state educated at a secondary school so bad it had a 54% pass rate at GCSE and has since shut down. It’s about hard graft and pushing yourself and I have never once felt under represented at Southampton because I know I earned my place here exactly like everyone else did. I don’t see why people who aren’t academically inclined are being told to go to university. There’s a ridiculous stigma in this country against vocational careers. If some people are not academic then that’s GOOD, the world doesn’t function if everyone’s an academic. Perhaps state education doesn’t give the same academic opportunities as private schools but in the case, state secondary schools need to work out how to improve their standards – universities don’t need to lower their grade boundaries to accommodate the failings of secondary education.

    Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

    I think I would agree the failings are more to do with secondary education, and that’s where changes really need to be made. But as Gabriela says below, a case by case basis of lowering requirements could be and have been beneficial.

  4. avatar

    Thanks Izzy for highlighting the fact that Southampton Uni has done a lot to encourage students from poorer backgrounds. After gaining an offer from here, Southampton made every effort to encourage me to keep it to the point of ringing me up twice to reassure me that despite the difficulties I had during my A Levels if I gained a minimum of ABB they would still accept me (my offer was AAA). I think that bringing grades down slightly for poorer/disadvantaged students should be done on a case by case basis as whilst we want academic standards to remain high we also want to ensure everyone who has the ability has a fair chance which is not happening. I think that hard work will only get you so far especially in A Level Science subjects where we were often left to complete entire units of work by ourselves unaided by the teachers.

    Isabella Hunter-Fajardo

    Yes Southampton has been great compared to the other Russel Group universities. I’ve benefited from it’s bursary programmes and I’ve had other friends who have benefitted from more reassuring grade boundaries. I think you’re right though, that any such lowering needs to be case by case, and shouldn’t be a blanket policy at all.

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