Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has called on universities to improve access and participation for disadvantaged students, and curb high dropout rates.
Data recently published by the Office for Students (OfS) shows that state school pupils from the most advantaged areas across England are 2.4 times more likely to go into higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas.
In contrast, latest UCAS figures show an improvement in the rate of disadvantaged English 18-year-olds starting university: 21.2% this year, up from 19.9% at the same point last year.
Gavin Williamson has called on universities to improve their support for disadvantaged students through delivering on their access and participation plans.
Mr Williamson said: “It is not good enough that white working class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others. We cannot let this wasted potential go unchecked any longer.
“I want all universities, including the most selective, to do everything they can to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education, but they also need to keep them there and limit the numbers dropping out of courses. My message is clear – up your game and get on with it.”
I want all universities, including the most selective, to do everything they can to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education, but they also need to keep them there and limit the numbers dropping out of courses
– Gavin Williamson
Government data published earlier this year shows that there also remains a discrepancy in dropout rates between advantaged and disadvantaged students.
In 2016/17, students from underprivileged backgrounds were more likely to drop out of university in their first year than their peers: 8.8% compared to 6% of full-time first degree students under 21. These figures also show an increased gap from the previous year.
Mr Williamson has commended universities that have published access and participation plans to support disadvantaged students, asking remaining universities to publish plans of their own. Plans will be closely monitored by the OfS, ensuring universities uphold their commitments.
King’s College London (KCL) received particular praise from Mr Williamson for the steps it has taken to improve access and widen participation of underrepresented groups, urging other universities to follow suit.
The education secretary’s challenge to universities follows a speech he made earlier in September at the Universities UK (UUK) annual conference. Addressing vice-chancellors, he called for the higher education sector to ensure wider access to universities for students from all backgrounds.