The proportion of public school students in UK universities has remained virtually unchanged over the past five years, although attempts have been made to increase the number.

More than two out of five top UK institutions saw a decline in the number of government students starting courses in 2019/20.

Of the young people starting university in 2019/20, nine out of ten (90.1%) were educated in state schools – a slight increase of 0.1 percentage points over the previous year.

However, the official data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) shows that the proportion of government-educated students varies significantly between universities or colleges.

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In some institutions, fewer than a third of UK students who started full-time courses in the fall of 2019 were from state schools, while in other providers all students were state educated.

An analysis of the numbers by the PA news agency shows that the proportion of state students at 23 universities and colleges is less than 75%.

Of that list, nine are Russell Group universities – traditionally the most selective institutions in the UK.

Of the Russell Group’s 24 facilities, 10 (41.7%) saw a decline in UK government-trained companies between 2018/19 and 2019/20, the analysis shows.

Edinburgh, Durham and Exeter were among the universities with the lowest proportions of public students – 63.2%, 63.5% and 64.5%, respectively – and their numbers fell year-over-year.

Statistics suggest that UK universities are under increasing pressure from ministers and regulators to expand access to higher education.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and University Leaders (ASCL) said: “It is simply not acceptable that the proportion of government students in some universities is so low.

“We recognize that the higher education sector has done a lot of work to increase participation, but there is still a long way to go in certain institutions.

“We understand that considering context in applications is a complex business, but honestly, this problem has taken too long and further action is needed.”

In 2019/20, 11.8% of UK young college graduates starting their first full-time bachelor’s degree were from “neighborhoods with low participation” – the places with the fewest young people going through college.

This is an increase of 0.4 percentage points compared to 11.4% in 2018/19.

Chris Millward, Director of Fair Access and Attendance at the Office for Students (OfS) said: “These numbers, which apply primarily to students starting courses before the pandemic, show a sustained and steady increase in representation from people with the hardest disadvantaged neighborhoods among those in higher education.

“This means that more students from areas with low university participation – often former industrial cities and districts in the north and the central plateau, as well as coastal cities – are taking advantage of the opportunities that higher education can offer.

“Some of the biggest increases have come from the most selective universities, where the participation of undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds has traditionally been low. This is welcome, but there is more to be done.”

He added: “We will work closely with universities and colleges to ensure the pandemic does not stall significant advances made so far.”


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