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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Research Projects

Publication details

Boliver, V. (2015). Lies, damned lies, and statistics on widening access to Russell Group universities. Radical Statistics 113: 29-38.

Author(s) from Durham


This article reports on a forensic examination of the statistical evidence
presented in a recent Russell Group report entitled Opening Doors which
claims that “real progress has been made over the last few years” in
relation to widening access at Russell Group universities (Russell Group
2015: 4). I show that several key statistics presented in Opening Doors
are highly misleading. First, seemingly large improvements in access to
Russell Group universities for students from free-school-meal
backgrounds are shown to rest on the dubious practice of calculating a
percentage increase from a very low base. Secondly, large apparent
increases in access for those from state schools and colleges rely on the
selective use of an unrepresentative base year. Third, the representation
of those from lower social class origins is presented in a positive light
without any mention of the fact that the figure had been static for
around a decade and that it compares unfavourably to the wider HE
sector and UK population. Fourth, apparently encouraging statistics
relating to students from low HE participation neighbourhoods are
presented, but these concern applicants rather than entrants, and to
all UK universities not just Russell Group ones. This article also
highlights the failure of Opening Doors to acknowledge a growing body
of statistical research evidence which indicates that one important
barrier to widening access at Russell Group universities is that
applicants from less advantaged social backgrounds are less likely to be
offered places at these universities than comparably qualified
applicants from more advantaged social groups. These studies receive
no acknowledgement in the Russell Group publication despite being
published in peer-reviewed academic journals by researchers working
at Russell Group institutions.

Department of Sociology