Figures recently released by David Willets, the Universities and Science minister, have revealed that Russell Group universities have an incredibly poor record for admitting students who received free school meals at the age of 15.
Willetts provided the figures after being quizzed in the House of Commons on 7th January 2014 by Peter Aldous, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Waveney, in Suffolk. The information reveals that for the current 24 Russell Group institutions in the academic year 2009-10, there were 1580 students in Higher Education by age 19 who had previously received free school meals. Meanwhile, that number was slightly lower for 2010-11, at 1540. The figures quoted are the most recent ones currently available.
This means that on average, current Russell Group universities admitted just 64 students who had received free school meals each in 2009-10. Some of the lowest admission rates are found at the Oxbridge universities; Cambridge admitted 25 in each year, whilst Oxford admitted just 15 per year.
Figures for York were unavailable. According to a University spokesperson York does not receive information as to whether an applicant was in receipt of free school meals or not.
However 18.6 per cent of students come from a background category graded between 4-7 on the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification scale meaning that they are from lower income jobs or backgrounds.
Free school meals are often used as a barometer for measuring social deprivation. In order to qualify for the meals, a student’s parent or carer must be in receipt of a low income benefit.
Despite these low admission figures, the Department of Education suggested in 2012 that up to 18 per cent of all children aged 4-15 and in state education were eligible and registered to receive free school meals.
However, the Russell Group argues that admissions should be measured in terms of students’ academic abilities, rather than their social background. Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, told Times Higher Education: “Our universities want to give places to students with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed, irrespective of their background. That’s why we are pumping millions more into outreach programmes and bursaries.”
And Piatt suggested that it was on the basis of qualifications that the figures can be explained: “The number one cause of under representation is that too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve good enough grades in the right subjects. In 2009, only 232 students who had been on free school meals achieved 3As at A-level or the equivalent.”
The Russell Group is a collection of 24 Higher Education institutions which lead pioneering research in the UK. It was first formed with 17 universities in 1994, and the University of York joined in 2012 alongside Durham, Exeter and Queen Mary, University of London.
Kallum Taylor, YUSU President, commented: “There are problems and factors throughout education and wider society as a whole.
“Also, getting students ‘into’ University is just one challenge – how they’re supported throughout their time at University is equally significant. With students facing huge debts and with some truly horrific cuts to vital support funds, you have to question just how much the government cares for this.”