The Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, today (27 May) launched an ambitious action plan to transform opportunities for disadvantaged and under-represented students. The new report, Pathways for Potential: How universities, regulators and Government can tackle educational inequality, sets out a series of new commitments Russell Group universities are making as well as recommendations for Government and the Office for Students.

The Covid-19 crisis facing the country has the potential to affect disproportionately those students who are already disadvantaged, and Russell Group universities have taken steps to provide targeted financial support and equipment to those in need, as well as to maintain its  high-quality widening access programmes, including schools outreach, mentoring, parental engagement and teacher conferences.

As the country recovers from the immediate crisis, the report considers the actions which are needed to accelerate progress in widening access to university and supporting students from under‑represented backgrounds to succeed on their degrees and beyond. Based on analysing Russell Group members’ experiences, views and studies from experts, and modelling of long-term access and participation targets, it proposes a three-pronged approach to tackle inequality throughout the education system:

  1. Our universities commit to delivering on their responsibility to diversify their campuses and support their students to reach their full potential. They will apply five principles of good practice –evaluation, collaboration, leadership, transparency and co-development with users – to maximise the impact of their efforts. 
  1. We ask the Office for Students – and equivalent bodies in the devolved administrations – to ensure the right regulatory incentives are in place to support further progress. This means ensuring universities can pursue collaborative and long-term work designed to widen the pool of applicants from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.
  1. To underpin all of this, a wider drive is needed to tackle inequality beginning right from the early years. We call on the Government to introduce a new ten-year national strategy to join up efforts across departments and all relevant stakeholders to boost social mobility. A new Office for Tackling Inequality should be tasked with ensuring all government policy supports this aim.

New analysis published for the first time in this report shows unless concerted action is taken to address social, cultural and economic barriers which disadvantaged people face, the Office for Students’ long-term targets to eliminate gaps in access to selective universities will not be met.

The analysis shows that even if student numbers from the most highly represented backgrounds are capped, universities would be required to admit large numbers of students with low grades and some with no academic qualifications at all to meet the targets. A focus solely on university admissions will not address the current embedded inequalities within the UK.

Commenting, Dr. Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said:

“Educational inequality undermines the pipeline of talent into the UK’s world-class universities when we should be unleashing opportunities to anyone with the drive and determination to access higher education, regardless of their circumstances.

“Russell Group universities will continue to do their part but breaking down the barriers created by educational inequality that start early in life is not a job for universities alone.

“We have set out bold plans to address this issue but we must work with government and as a whole society to level up opportunity for every community across the country.

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“People and ideas will be fundamental to our economic growth and recovery after the Covid19 crisis. It is more important than ever to tap into every scrap of potential and talent and ensure that nobody’s future is restricted by their background, ethnicity or income level.”

Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan said:

“Working with their communities, schools and colleges, our world class universities play a vital role in levelling up opportunities for everyone and in helping to unleash the brilliant potential across our country.

“It is more crucial than ever before that we tap into the brilliant talent that our country has to offer, and make sure that anyone who wants to, whatever their background or wherever they come from, is given the chance to go to university.

“The last few months have been unprecedented, and I am incredibly proud of our universities who have been pivotal in the fightback against Covid-19 and will continue to be crucial as we recover from this global pandemic.”

Professor Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, who has conducted research into widening participation in higher education, said:

“Our research clearly shows that socio-economic inequalities in educational attainment emerge very early in a child’s life. If we are to widen participation to higher education in the long run, it is vital that we do all we can to try to narrow the socio-economic gap in attainment earlier on in children’s schooling. A focus on admissions and outreach is important but without investment in the earlier period of a child’s life, we are unlikely to see as much progress in widening participation.”

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, said: 

‘I welcome this report and the commitments made by Russell Group universities in the plans they have agreed with us to transform opportunities for students who are underrepresented in higher education. There has been clear progress in opening up opportunities to study at the most selective universities, but where you come from continues significantly to determine where you end up. There is still a long way to go before these opportunities are genuinely available across all parts of the country.  

‘The Russell Group is right to highlight the importance of collaboration. That’s why we are funding Uni Connect partnerships to give impartial information, advice and guidance to 1,613 schools and colleges, reaching over 180,000 young people and their parents in areas where fewer people go to university. We are also funding the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education, an independent what works centre which will generate and share evidence of effective approaches used by different universities, and working with the higher education tracking services to ensure that universities can demonstrate the benefits of their outreach work – wherever the student ends up. 

‘We support the Russell Group’s aim for universities to be able to access more individualised data so they can identify those students who are most critically disadvantaged, and will continue to work with UCAS and the Department for Education towards achieving this, whilst ensuring the protection of student data. 

‘The current crisis has revealed different experiences and outcomes across our educational system, so it is more important than ever to make progress on tackling inequality in higher education. We are working to ensure that vulnerable and disadvantaged students receive the best possible support during the coronavirus outbreak, and we will be looking to universities to get back on track with their plans to address equality gaps as the nation moves out of lockdown.’ 

Russell Group commitments and recommendations

The Russell Group propose a three-pronged action plan to dismantle the obstacles faced by students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups:

1. Universities embedding good practice across access and participation efforts

Through this report, Russell Group universities have committed to:

  • Embedding evaluation across the full range of access and participation activities.
  • Building on their collaborative work, with each other and other institutions
  • Ensuring senior ownership and accountability
  • Providing transparent information on admissions policies to all applicants
  • Building on their work designing initiatives alongside students, teachers and others

2. Introducing the right regulatory incentives to support further progress

The Office for Students should:

  • Allow universities to use appropriate indicators to identify under-represented groups for their location, student demography and institutional mission, including alternatives to POLAR
  • Make pupil-level datasets used to indicate disadvantage available
  • Incentivise collaboration between universities
  • Encourage long-term interventions to address the root-causes of under-representation
  • Continue to build expertise in evaluation and address evidence gaps

3. Creating a new national strategy to tackle educational inequality

In order to address the wider social, cultural and financial barriers faced by under-represented and disadvantaged students in accessing and succeeding in higher education, the Government should:

  • Commit to a new national strategy to tackle inequality across the educational lifecycle and beyond, with central co-ordination, sustained political support, cross-departmental accountability, a framework for regional collaboration, and national targets
  • Create a new Government Office for Tackling Inequality to achieve buy-in, engagement and coordination across departments.
  • Consider how to make the National Pupil Database more accessible and user-friendly

Methodology: This report is based on research conducted by the Russell Group using a range of methods including:

  • in-depth interviews with social mobility think tanks, practitioners, schools’ representatives and academics
  • a survey of Russell Group members and an assessment of their most recent access and participation plans
  • existing external research and data on higher education, social mobility and widening participation, and
  • a survey of social mobility charities. 

In addition, Russell Group members were asked to contribute case studies which demonstrate the impact of their work in improving access to their universities and in supporting retention, attainment, and progression for under-represented students. Full details of the case studies can be found in a separate short report.

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