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Access to Russell Group universities ‘far from fair’, according to new research

(26 March 2013)

Dr Vikki Boliver

Access to Russell Group universities is ‘far from fair’, according to a new study.

The research by Dr Vikki Boliver, a lecturer in the School of Applied Social Sciences, shows that applicants from state schools and from black and Asian ethnic backgrounds are less likely to be admitted to Russell Group universities than their peers with the same A-level results from private schools and white ethnic backgrounds.

According to an analysis of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) data for about 49,000 university applicants over the period 1996-2006, barriers to admission to elite universities are due partly to unequal rates of application to elite universities, but also appear to involve some form of differential factor during the admissions process.

For applicants from state schools the analysis showed that unfair access was rooted equally in barriers to applying as well as in relation to admissions.

Compared to private school applicants with the same A-level grades, state school applicants were shown to be less likely to seek places at Russell Group universities in the first place, and to be less likely to be offered places at Russell Group universities when they did apply.

For ethnic minority applicants, the unfairness appeared to stem entirely from some form of differential factor during the admissions process.

University applicants with the same A-level grades were found to be equally likely to apply to Russell Group universities regardless of their ethnic background, but those from black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds were shown to be significantly less likely than white applicants to be offered places at Russell Group universities even when they had achieved the same exam grades at A-level.

The findings will be presented at a Higher Education Academy conference on 26th March and published in the British Journal of Sociology in June.

Study author Dr Vikki Boliver said: "These findings highlight the inadequacy of 'fair access' policies which focus almost exclusively on eliminating barriers to university application. We need not only to continue the widening participation work already being undertaken, but also to take a closer look at the admissions process to identify where access could be made fairer.”

UCAS data was analysed for the period between 1996-2006 on social class, school background, ethnic group, and actual grades achieved at A-level or equivalent.

Dr Boliver added: "In this study, we were only able to look at the actual grades applicants achieved in their A-levels. Of course, admissions selectors often base their decisions on applicants’ predicted rather than actual A-level grades together with a range of other indicators of merit and potential.

“However, the findings of this study do suggest that the admissions policies and practices of Russell Group universities unfairly disadvantage applicants from state schools and from certain ethnic minority backgrounds. I would urge all Russell Group universities to scrutinise their admissions policies and practices carefully for possible sources of bias.”

The study, funded by the British Academy, found that the introduction of tuition fees at English universities in 1998 and their initial increase to £3,000 a year in 2006 had little effect, either way, on fair access.

An update to the study, covering the further increase in tuition fees to £9,000 a year in 2012, found that state school applicants continue to be significantly less likely to receive offers from Russell Group universities than comparably qualified applicants from private schools, although the disparity appears to have become smaller over time.

Ethnic minority applicants also continue to be significantly less likely to receive offers from Russell Group universities than comparably qualified white applicants, with no evidence of any equalisation over time.

The analysis for this study and its update looked specifically at the twenty universities who were members of the Russell Group during the period September 1996 and June 2012.

Members of the Russell Group between September 1996 and June 2012 and analysed in this study are:

University of Birmingham; University of Bristol; University of Cambridge; Cardiff University; University of Edinburgh; University of Glasgow; Imperial College London; King's College London; University of Leeds; University of Liverpool; London School of Economics & Political Science; University of Manchester; Newcastle University; University of Nottingham; University of Oxford; Queen’s University Belfast; University of Sheffield; University of Southampton; University College London and the University of Warwick.

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