How fair is access to more prestigious UK universities?


  • The research reported in this paper was undertaken while the author was a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology and Nuffield College, University of Oxford. The author is grateful to the British Academy and the John Fell Fund for awarding small grants for the purchase of UCAS data. This paper has been much improved as a result of helpful feedback received from colleagues at Oxford, particularly Anthony Heath; from the participants of seminars given at Manchester, Durham, Leeds Metropolitan and York universities; and from three anonymous reviewers. Special thanks go, as always, to Malcolm Parkes.

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Now that most UK universities have increased their tuition fees to £9,000 a year and are implementing new Access Agreements as required by the Office for Fair Access, it has never been more important to examine the extent of fair access to UK higher education and to more prestigious UK universities in particular. This paper uses Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) data for the period 1996 to 2006 to explore the extent of fair access to prestigious Russell Group universities, where ‘fair’ is taken to mean equal rates of making applications to and receiving offers of admission from these universities on the part of those who are equally qualified to enter them. The empirical findings show that access to Russell Group universities is far from fair in this sense and that little changed following the introduction of tuition fees in 1998 and their initial increase to £3,000 a year in 2006. Throughout this period, UCAS applicants from lower class backgrounds and from state schools remained much less likely to apply to Russell Group universities than their comparably qualified counterparts from higher class backgrounds and private schools, while Russell Group applicants from state schools and from Black and Asian ethnic backgrounds remained much less likely to receive offers of admission from Russell Group universities in comparison with their equivalently qualified peers from private schools and the White ethnic group.