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 institutions in the UK saw a decline in the number of students from the government sector starting their 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 differs significantly between universities or colleges.

(PA graphic)

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 Schools and University Directors (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 been taking too long and further action is needed.”

In 2019/20, 11.8% of UK young college graduates who started their first full-time degree were from “neighborhoods with low participation” – the places where the fewest young people go to college.

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

Chris Millward, Director of Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OfS) said, “These numbers, largely responsible for students starting courses before the pandemic, show a sustained and steady increase in the representation of people with the am most 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 been in the most selective universities, where the participation of 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.”

A Russell Group spokesperson said: “The proportion of students entering from state schools and neighborhoods with low participation increased slightly across the Russell Group in 2019-20.

“Our members are working hard to keep increasing that number and to carry out a wide range of school placement activities, including mentoring programs, summer schools and campus visits.”

He added: “Last summer, the ratio between students from the highest and lowest participation areas taking up a place at Russell Group Universities in England in 2020/21 and the number of students from the strongest improved underrepresented areas increased by 22%.

“This reflects the determination of our members to ensure that students were not penalized by assessment changes in 2020 and we will continue to take a fair and flexible approach this summer.”


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