Proportion of state school pupils starting university declines

The proportion of British state school pupils going to university has fallen for the first time in eight years, with the bottom 15 institutions taking less than 70% of their first-year undergraduates from state schools.

The data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 2017-18 showed that state-educated Britons accounted for 89.8% of young entrants overall, below the previous year’s 90%.

For universities, it marked the first reversal in the rise of state school enrolments since 2010-11, matching other data showing only slow progress being made in recruiting students from areas of low educational attainment.

The fall in state school students comes despite a rapid expansion of the higher education sector and an emphasis on widening participation.

Last year, only 11.6% of students came from so-called “low participation neighbourhoods”, based on the sector’s measure of disadvantage. That rate is only slightly higher than the 10.9% recorded in 2012, when tuition fees were first raised to £9,000.

Luke Heselwood, a researcher at the Reform thinktank, said: “If ministers want to do better, they should do three things: find a better measure for assessing disadvantage; evaluate universities’ spending on widening participation; and campaign to encourage applications from disadvantaged students.”

Heselwood said the current measures used to assess disadvantage were not effective and argued it would be better to use criteria such as free school meals rates instead.

Chris Millward, the director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), the university regulator for England, called the improvements incremental and promised the OfS’s plans would lead to a step change within the next five years.

“We want universities to understand how they are performing using sophisticated measures, looking across different characteristics to understand disadvantage in their own context and targeting their activity and investment so that it really works,” he said.

Oxford remains the university accepting the lowest proportion of state school pupils, with 58% of its first-year undergraduates so designated in 2017-18. Next is St Andrews, on 60%, and Durham and Imperial College London, on 61%. Cambridge was close behind, with 63% of its intake from state schools, with the universities of Bristol and Exeter on 66%.

More than 100 higher education institutions had 90% or more of their intake from state schools. Among the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, Queen Mary University in London had the highest rate at 91%.

Oxford’s results were more favourable in terms of students with disabilities. Nearly 700 – almost 8% – of its 9,000 UK undergraduates received the disabled students allowance, above the national average. In contrast, 3% of students at Glasgow receive the allowance, 3.5% at Imperial College and 4.1% at Cambridge.