Does the ‘Attainment Gap’ get Russell Group universities off the hook?

In the UK, Russell Group universities are the posh ones: institutions with the highest entry grade requirements, the highest graduate salaries and the most prestige. There’s 24 of them, and the group take its name from the Hotel Russell, which currently ranks 455th of 1,079 hotels in London by Trip Advisor (“bathroom not hygienic,” says Jan from Ghent, “there was some brown substance in the corner of the window”).

The question of who gets into Russell Group university is, for obvious reasons, an important one. According the UCAS application figures for 2013/14, “18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas are three times more likely to apply to higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas, and entry rates to institutions that require high grades are typically six to nine times greater for applicants from advantaged areas.”

‘Six to nine times greater’ sounds an awful lot. However, the Russell Group do have an explanation: “The main problem is that students who come from low-income backgrounds and/or who have attended comprehensive schools are much less likely to achieve the highest grades than those who are from more advantaged backgrounds and who have been to independent or grammar schools,” explains Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Group. And she’s right: go to a private school and you’re four times more likely to get AAA in your A-levels than you would be at a comprehensive. “Universities simply cannot solve these problems alone,” says Dr Piatt.

Among the research supporting the ‘attainment gap’ is a paper by Haroon Chowdry and colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It’s  a fascinating study, following two groups of English pupils from the age of 11, and noting how their academic performance at each stage of school testing affects their likelihood of participation. Findings suggest that differences in participation rates across the social classes “are substantially reduced once prior achievement is included”. They add that:

“Poor achievement in secondary schools is more important in explaining lower HE participation rates among pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds than barriers arising at the point of entry to HE. These findings are consistent with the need for earlier policy intervention to raise HE participation rates among pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds.”

Few would argue with the second point. What’s most helpful for children of low socio-economic status is intervention at an early age. You can’t correct for years of educational disadvantage as a UCAS deadline is approaching. The first point is also true – low attainment is undoubtedly the UK’s biggest barrier to participation. However, there is a tendency for Chowdry and Co to gloss over the differences that still remain at the point of entry.

Take this finding: once all prior attainment is taken into account, girls from the lowest socioeconomic quintile are 5.3% less likely to enter HE than girls from the highest socioeconomic quintile. Boys are 4.1% less likely. If you want a place at a Russell Group university, your odds are reduced by 4.3% and 2.5% respectively. Similar findings were reported earlier this week by Vikki Boliver for equal-attainment applicants in a survey of UCAS applicants from 1996 to 2006. Applicants from lower class backgrounds and from state schools were less likely to be offered a place at Russell Group universities than their comparably qualified counterparts from higher class backgrounds and private schools (even when ‘facilitating’ subjects were controlled for, despite the spin put on the research by some).

For Chowdry and his fellows authors, the point-of-entry gap between applicants of different socioeconomic status is “modest”. Encouraging less well-off students to apply to university at the age of 18 is therefore “unlikely to have a major impact” on participation. In relative terms, of course, this is perfectly true – improving attainment for all young people of lower socioeconomic status would make a bigger difference than focusing on the small proportion who defy the odds and get good grades.

But doesn’t this line of thinking get HE off the hook a little too easily? What of the thousands of high-achieving young people who aren’t making it to a top university each year? Jonathan Portes makes the same points about Chris Cook’s interpretation of the Oxford University data. He also uses the graph below to show that, if these young people did participate, they’d probably outperform students from more privileged backgrounds.

We cannot offer places to those who do not apply,” says Dr Piatt. True. But there’s a growing body of research that suggests those who do apply to Russell Group universities are not always treated equally. The ‘attainment gap’ certainly isn’t to blame for that.

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Not another Widening Participation blog?

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The title of my blog refers to a 2004 Sutton Trust report which suggested that, every year, 3,000 disadvantaged young people in the UK don’t attend a top university despite having good enough grades to do so. The figures, based on benchmarks by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), showed that 45% of independent school students who obtain ABB+ (or equivalent) go to a leading university, but only 26% of state school pupils obtaining the same grades do so. ‘Leading’ universities are defined as the 13 highest-ranking UK institutions, and they’re the ones associated with greater prestige, better facilities and higher salaries. The consequences for social mobility are obvious.

Much has changed since 2004, of course. On one hand, a tripling of student fees and the abolition of AimHigher and the Educational Maintenance Allowance may make participation even trickier for some disadvantaged young people. On the other hand, the latest figures from UCAS actually show applications from the poorest 20% of the population at a record high.

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The point of this blog is to help make sense of the (often contradictory) stats and the (often controversial) policies, with a view to finding out whether 3,000 young people still go ‘missing’ every year. I also want to shed some critical light on debates about Higher Education (HE). By ‘critical’, I mean asking questions like:

  • Is being ‘missing’ from a top university the same as ‘missing out’?
  • Does Widening Participation (WP) still matter? How wide must participation be? Can the WP battle ever be won?
  • What makes a young person ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘non-traditional’? Which are the overrepresented groups in HE?
  • What assumptions are encoded in the language and discourse of WP? Why do we frame the debate in terms of ‘barriers’ to participation?

The Sutton Trust’s ‘Missing 3,000’ suggests that high-achieving working class youngsters may be deterred by the prestige associated with top universities, by the prospect of moving away from home, and by the cultural and social distance they perceive university to be from their own lives. Lots of other published research in the field (by Diane Reay and Penny Jane Burke, among others) find similar factors at play, and recent data I’ve collected in low-participation Manchester secondary schools suggest that these problems persist.

Despite the modest gains in WP over the last ten years, recent quantitative studies by Vikki Boliver and Chris Cook find alarming disparities. According to Boliver, state school applicants are only 4/5ths as likely to receive an offer from a Russell Group university as private school applicants, even when their  grades are the same  (although that statistic doesn’t control for predicted grades, subject choice or applicants being either under- or over-ambitious in their selections).

Clearly, debates in this area are complex and sensitive. But since dipping a toe in the field of HE (my academic background is in Linguistics), I’ve found the research to be stimulating and the debates fascinating. University participation is a topic about which everyone holds a view. Some of those views are well-informed, evidence-based and insightful. Others aren’t. This blog is simply one scholar’s attempt to help distinguish between the two.