University admissions: It could take a century to close equality gaps, think tank warns

A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute has warned that highly selective universities are moving ‘glacially slow’ on access and participation

It could take a century to close the gap between the number of advantaged and disadvantaged students attending highly selective universities, a think tank was warned.

Following the latest round of official access and participation statistics, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has calculated that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 96 years for some universities in England to achieve the targets set for them by The Office for Students.

The Office for Students wants all English universities to eradicate inequality in higher education by 2037/38, but this latest research casts doubt on its targets.

In a report entitled Social mobility and elite universities, Prof Lee Elliot Major and Dr Pallavi Amitava Banerjee said progress must speed up to ensure less advantaged students had the same chance of reaching the most selective institutions as more advantaged students.

Failing to find ways of expanding university places will prompt acrimonious battles over who secures degree places
– Prof Lee Elliot Major, University of Exeter

Read more: ‘We are still a long way from equality’ – OfS

‘Glacially slow’

The report warned that either the number of places at top universities would need to double to 170,000 to accommodate less advantaged students or institutions would need to cut the number of advantaged pupils they accept by a third.

The report recommended universities use more contextualised offers, specifically offering a minimum entry requirement for students from low participation backgrounds. The authors said a similar scheme has worked well in Scotland.

The authors also endorsed ‘random allocation’ for students who achieved a minimum A-level threshold to ensure better distribution of advantaged and less advantaged students in the system. The report called upon the Office for Students to challenge highly selective universities to increase student numbers with an expansion of degree apprenticeships, foundation years and part-time learning.

Elliot Major, professor in social mobility, said: “Current progress on fairer access to our most selective universities is glacially slow. The time has come for a simpler, more transparent, consistent and honest system of university admissions, recognising that A-Level grades and our system of predicted grades, are no longer the gold standard of entry.

“Failing to find ways of expanding university places will prompt acrimonious battles over who secures degree places – a clash of the classes – with politicians, parents and students questioning the fairness of university admissions.”

In the report’s summary, the author’s criticised highly selective universities for doing less to close the equality gap than less selective institutions.

“Much of the heavy lifting on widening participation in higher education to date has been undertaken by newer and less selective higher education institutions. The access challenge therefore remains greater at more selective institutions. They could learn from the best practice that exists in less selective universities,” Elliot Major and Amitava Banerjee wrote.

Read more: Labour promises to expand lifelong learning


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