Recent modelling done by Russell Group universities has suggested that they will have to accept students with low A-level grades or no academic qualifications in order to meet the access targets set by the Office for Students.

The group of universities, representing the top 24 academic institutions in the country have addressed the need for an approach focused on narrowing the attainment gap between children of disadvantaged and privileged backgrounds at an earlier point in the education system. As part of their response, they have called for the government to create a new Office for Tackling Inequality, and to launch a new 10-year strategy aimed at addressing these issues.

The exact figures from the report suggest that the most selective institutions will need to recruit all applicants from the most underrepresented areas, who have received three A-levels by 2026, regardless of the grades they have achieved. By 2035, this would require the universities to recruit all applicants from these backgrounds, regardless of whether they have studied for academic qualifications.

Office for Students has in recent years set out to decrease the gap between those from underrepresented backgrounds and their more privileged peers. Their latest target for universities has been a requirement for this ‘gap’ to be eliminated by the 2039-40 academic year. Universities may face financial penalties if they fail to meet the targets.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, in response to the new report 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 (TASO), 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.

“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.”

A spokesperson for the OfS also addressed the specific concerns from the Russell Group’s report:

 “It is true that Russell Group universities because of their high entry requirements don’t currently have enough disadvantaged applicants who meet those requirements. This is why – as the report itself acknowledges – they need to both engage in attainment raising activity so that more disadvantaged pupils become applicants, and operate contextual admissions to recognise and address the systemic inequalities in educational outcomes. It’s also important to note that our target won’t be met if universities only focus on admitting more school leavers – they need also to embrace students who are looking to return to education later in life and provide more flexible learning opportunities for them. Reducing the attainment gap in schools is a government priority addressed through the pupil premium in particular and a focus of work by the Education Endowment Foundation too.”

Dr. Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, said on this issue: 

“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.

“People and ideas will be fundamental to our economic growth and recovery after the Covid-19 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.”

Oxford University chose not to make a comment but said that they would shortly be releasing their Undergraduate Admissions Report which contains their approach to access and the rest of the sector. This report has now been delayed due to “world events”.