Widening participation: Russell Group report calls for drive to tackle inequality in higher education

Russell Group sets out three-point plan to transform opportunities for disadvantaged and under-represented students

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 as part of its commitment to widening participation.

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

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.

Unleashing potential

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.”

Tackling inequality

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.
  2. 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.
  3. To underpin all this, a wider drive is needed to tackle inequality beginning right from the early years. We call on the Government to introduce a new 10-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.

Missing widening participation targets?

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.

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 – Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive, Russell Group

“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.

“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.”

… 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 – Professor Anna Vignoles, professor of education, University of Cambridge

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.”


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