The row about the increase in the benchmarks for state school students attending our leading universities is hiding the truth about the rapid growth of state school students with high qualifications attending them, according to a new report by the Sutton Trust.

The number of students from state schools going to 13 leading universities rose from 16,900 in 1997/98 to 22,800 in 2002/03 – a rise of 5,900 or 35% – accounting for almost all the growth in the number of undergraduate students at these universities They now form 68% of new admissions instead of 61% five years ago.

The Sutton Trust report goes on to say that the new government benchmarks – which use total UCAS points rather than A level grades – cannot be justified for top universities as these universities use A level grades to select students.

“The furore over the new higher benchmarks should not detract from two incontrovertible facts which lie at the heart of this debate,” said Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust. “On the one hand, we have a real success story. Initiatives such as summer schools and better school-university links have encouraged thousands more young people from state schools to attend our top universities.

“On the other, we face a continuing challenge. There are still 3,000 state school students who each year achieve the A levels necessary to enter our leading universities, but who, for a variety of reasons, do not end up there. More than anything these findings demonstrate that the deep-rooted inequalities in our education system can be – and are being – addressed without compromising the high standards of our top universities.”

“Ministers should not allow the controversy over the new benchmarks to undermine the success of a range of outreach initiatives. They should instead ask the new Director of Fair Access, Professor Sir Martin Harris, to work with universities to continue to develop their outreach activities and to develop benchmarks which reflect their actual admission standards, setting challenging but realistic goals for the future”, added Sir Peter.

The Trust’s latest report is based on statistics for the academic years 1997/98 to 2002/03 provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for admissions to 13 top universities. These are the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York.  Birmingham and Bristol universities have increased their representation of state school students the most by 9 percentage points. York University has an 80% state school student intake – the highest of the 13 – followed by Birmingham (79%) and Warwick (78%) see table on next page. Oxford has increased its state school intake by 8 percentage points from 47% to 55% and Cambridge by 6 percentage points from 52% to 58%.

Figure 1: State School admissions: performance 1997/98 – 2002/03

.                            1997/98                              2002/03..
.Total young entrantsState school entrants% of total intakeTotal young entrantsState school entrants% of total intakeIncrease in state school entrants% points increase
St Andrews96457860%90056262%-162%

Source: Government university admissions data

UniversityNo of applicants in 2004No of places and dates
Bristol463120 – 13th-18th July
Cambridge565148 – 6th-11th, 13th-18th
Nottingham23472 – 20th-26th July
Oxford1103300 – 6th-11th July
St Andrews12960 – 6th-11th July

The Cambridge Summer School is co-funded with Glenn Earle, a partner at Goldman Sachs.

As well as these six summer schools, the Sutton Trust sponsors two summer schools for further education students at Cambridge University and one at Southampton University. There is also an annual Sutton Trust summer school for about 110 teachers from state schools and colleges at Oxford University. This programme and the Sutton Trust Summer School at Oxford is part-funded by the University’s HEFCE funding for widening participation initiatives.

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