Report Overview

In 2011, the Sutton Trust published Degrees of Success, which looked at university acceptance rates and how they differ by school type and area, finding state school pupils were considerably less likely to go to top universities than independent or grammar school pupils.

Access to Advantage returns to the issues raised in this report, with findings showing little has changed. In the UK, whether someone goes to university, and if so at which institution they study, is still highly impacted by an individual’s socioeconomic background, the school they attend and where in the country they are from.

Authored by Sutton Trust Research Fellow Rebecca Montacute and Carl Cullinane, this report uses UCAS data to analyse university acceptance rates for the 2015-2017 cohorts by school type and region, and discusses what schools and universities can do to help close the gap in Higher Education participation rates in England.


Private school pupils in England are 7 times more likely to gain a place at Oxbridge.


8 top schools had as many Oxbridge acceptances as three-quarters of all schools.


Almost half of state school applicants received and accepted an offer from a Russell Group university.

Key Findings
  • Eight top schools had as many Oxbridge acceptances as another 2894 schools and colleges across the UK put together. This comes to about three quarters of all schools and colleges. The eight schools with the highest number of Oxbridge acceptances had 1310 between them over a three-year period, while 2894 schools and colleges with two or fewer acceptances had just 1220 acceptances between them.
  • In England, Independent school pupils are 7 times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge compared to those in non-selective state schools, and over twice as likely to take a place at Russell Group institutions.
  • The proportion of HE applicants from state schools in England who gain a place at Oxbridge differs substantially by region, with differences between the South and East of England compared to the rest of the country. Around 1.5% of state school HE applicants from the South East, South West, London and East of England went to Oxbridge, but only around 0.8% of those from the North or the Midlands.
  • Schools with similar exam results had very different rates of progression to top universities, and especially to Oxbridge. Almost a quarter (23%) of students in independent schools in the top fifth of all schools for exam results applied to Oxbridge, but only 11% of students in comprehensives in the same high achieving group of schools did so. Of those who applied to Oxbridge from schools in the top fifth, 35% were successful from independent schools, but only 28% of those applying from comprehensives were accepted.
  • Acceptance rates to higher education are high, with over 90% of all applicants accepted to a higher education institution. This was similar across all school types.
  • Applicants from comprehensive schools were less likely to receive and accept an offer from a Russell Group university compared to independent schools (44% compared to 71%). Almost two thirds of those who applied from grammar schools were accepted (63%). FE college acceptance rates were substantially lower, at 30%.
  • Acceptance rates for Oxbridge are higher at independent and grammar schools, with about a third (34%) of independent school applicants accepting an offer, along with 31% of grammar schools. This compares to 25% of those at sixth form colleges and 22% at comprehensive schools.
  • The results of students accepted to Russell Group universities were similar across school types, equivalent to between AAA and AAB on average. At Oxbridge this rises to A*A*A.

For Universities:

    1. Universities should make greater use of contextual data in their admissions process, to open-up access to students from less privileged backgrounds. Highly selective universities in particular, where low and moderate-income students are substantially under-represented, should make greater use of contextual admissions, including reduced grade offers, to recognise the differing circumstances faced by applicants.
    2. There should be greater transparency from universities when communicating how contextual data is used, including the use of automated ‘contextual data checkers’. In order for contextual admissions to have an effect, it should be communicated clearly to potential applicants where they may benefit from a contextual offer. Otherwise, they may never apply in the first place. Universities should publicise the criteria for contextual admissions clearly, along with how they are taken into account. For example, through an easy-to-use lookup tool on university websites allowing candidates to enter their details and find out whether they qualify.
    3. A geographic element should be included in future university access agreements, including a focus on peripheral areas. There is a notable lack of provision of university outreach in peripheral areas in stark contrast to working-class schools and colleges in London, which often receive high levels of engagement. Oxbridge and other selective universities should target schools in such neglected areas.
    4. Universities should work to reassure students and families who may be reluctant to move substantial distances to university. Outreach activities, open days and summer schools such as the Sutton Trust’s Summer Schools can help to reassure such students – and their parents – about travelling by offering more opportunities for them to visit those universities.

For Schools:

    1. All pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional impartial advisers. For those facing disadvantage – or who are at risk of failing to reach their potential – there should be further support available, including being supported to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities for the personal statement. The ‘Careers Leaders’ in schools, established by the government’s Careers Strategy, should ensure that key messages are consistent across staff and based on up to date guidelines.
    2. Advice should happen earlier, and include guidance on subject options at A level. Many young people are not getting the right advice when it comes to A level options. Students need more support at an earlier age, that can help them to make an informed choice on their A-level choices. This should include advice on ‘facilitating subjects’, favoured by Russell Group universities.