At least a quarter of the access gap to the top universities in England, the United States and Australia cannot be explained by academic achievement, according to new research to be presented at a Sutton Trust summit this morning.

The advancing access and admissions to leading universities summit will be opened by the Secretary of State for Business, Universities and Skills, Vince Cable MP.

At the summit, around eighty academics and university admissions leaders from the US, UK and Europe will discuss ways to improve access for low and middle income students to elite universities. Among those attending are the heads of admissions at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge.

The research by Dr John Jerrim, of the Institute of Education at the University of London, shows that children with professional parents are around three times more likely than those with working class parents to be admitted to Russell Group universities in England, ‘Group of Eight’ universities in Australia and highly selective US public universities, and six times more likely to go to the most selective private US universities as opposed to going to a less prestigious university.

However, in all the samples at least a quarter of the difference in admissions could not be explained by academic achievement, suggesting that many low and middle students with the grades to go to leading universities are not doing so.

The research shows that children of professionals in England are 3.2 times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than working class children, as opposed to going to a less prestigious university. However, 27% of this difference cannot be explained by exam grades.

Children of professionals are 3.3 times more likely to go to leading US public universities than working class children, and 40% of the difference cannot be explained by differences in academic achievement. At elite private US universities, where the gap between professional and working class children is 6.4 times, 52% of the difference cannot be explained by academic achievement.

Children of professionals are 2.7 times more likely to attend one of Australia’s top eight universities than working class children, with only 50% of the difference explicable by academic results.

Dr Jerrim will tell the summit:  “Although academic achievement is an important factor, a substantial proportion of the elite university access gap in each country remains unexplained. This suggests that there are working class children who, even though they have the grades to attend, choose to enter a non-selective institution instead.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today: “Access to elite universities is a real issue across the globe, and we hope that by discussing it at the summit, we can learn from each other on what can work to improve access for bright low and middle income students. This new research confirms that there many able children either not applying or not being admitted to the best universities, and this is true internationally.”

In his presentation, Dr Jerrim will also highlight differences in the real cost of going to elite universities in England and the United States.  While the ‘sticker price’ fees at private US universities are often much higher than those at England’s leading universities, generous aid packages enable students from low and middle income homes to graduate debt-free.

Average headline fees are £9,000 a year at Oxford and £24,200 at Harvard. With living costs and accommodation, the ‘sticker price’ of going to Oxford is £16,600 a year and to Harvard is £37,333.

However, generous aid packages mean that a student at Harvard from a family with a household income of £27,500 would only be expected to find £2,019, usually through a structured work-study programme, whereas a student at Oxford – which has some of the most generous student support in the UK – with the same family household income would still face costs of £11,300.

There are larger bursaries for those on lower incomes at Oxford, but students would still be expected to repay £3550 a year with interest on a household income of £10,000 compared to the £865 estimated at Harvard, which is normally paid off through a structured work-study programme.

This means that low and middle income students at Harvard are able to graduate debt-free whereas many of those at UK universities face repaying loans through their taxes, with real interest from their first year at university, and debts that will be typically £40,000-£50,000.

In his paper, Dr Jerrim will say: “The ‘sticker price’ of elite private US colleges like Harvard is high compared to their counterparts in the UK such as Oxford. However, the generous aid packages mean that the actual price young people from low income backgrounds pay to attend elite private colleges in the United States is significantly lower.”

Dr Jerrim’s paper also shows that the social composition of elite universities in the US and the UK is broadly similar – and students from poorer homes account for just 1 in 20 undergraduates at leading universities in both countries.

On Monday, the Sutton Trust announced that Harvard would be joining Yale and MIT in hosting US summer schools in 2014, with a total of 175 places available for able low and middle income students interested in studying at leading US universities.


1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated hundreds of programmes for young people of all ages, from early years through to Access to the Professions.

2. For more information about this week’s Sutton Trust summit on Advancing Access and Admissions to leading universities – or if you wish to attend all or part of the summit – please contact Ellie Decamp on [email protected] in advance. The summit runs from 9.30-16.30 on Wednesday 13th November and from 9.25-13.20 on Thursday 14 November at the Royal Society, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AG.

3.For full coverage of the summit including copies of Dr Jerrim’s paper, a blog by summit rapporteur John O’Leary and other reports from the summit, please visit[1].pdf

4. The figures quoted by Dr Jerrim on the likelihood of going to an elite university relate to young people who finish secondary education up to age 18. The figures are relative to the likelihood of going to a ‘non-elite’ university. Figures in England predate the introduction of the higher tuition fee in 2012. Measurement of academic ability in England is based on A-level achievement and a proxy PISA measure. In the US, it is based on PISA measures, quintiles of SAT scores, high school GPA and scores on a cognitive math test at age 18. In Australia it is a PISA measure and Tertiary Entry Rank (similar to UCAS points).  US fees data are for in-state students in receipt of Title IV financial assistance.

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