Report Overview

This paper summarises the Sutton Trust’s position on the Coalition Government’s approach to university access. With concerns that the increases in tuition fees will deter future students from low and middle income backgrounds, the report looks at reforms to university outreach work in England.

Key Findings

  • Independent school pupils are over 22 times more likely to enter a highly selective university than state school children entitled to Free School Meals.
  • Independent school pupils are 55 times more likely than FSM pupils to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge.
  • These stark university participation gaps are driven by significant gaps at GCSE level and before: independent school pupils were three and a half times more likely than FSM pupils to attain five GCSEs with grades A*-C including English and maths.
  • Independent school pupils are 6 times as likely to attend a highly selective university as the majority of children in state schools not entitled to Free School Meals.
  • At the 25 most academically selective universities in England, only 2% (approximately 1,300 pupils each year) of the student intake was made up of Free School Meal pupils, compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils, and just over a quarter of the intake (25.8%) from independent schools.
  • At the most selective universities of all, including Oxbridge, less than 1% of students are FSM pupils – compared with nearly half the intake from independent schools.
  • The proportions of FSM students vary significantly between different highly selective universities.


  1. The Government’s new National Scholarship Programme should not be used solely to target financial support for children entitled to Free School Meals as the enter university; this will have little impact on access to the most of the country’s most prestigious universities, and represents a lost opportunity to pilot different access approaches and stimulate outreach work by universities
  2. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) should remain an independent organisation and include figures from outside the higher education sector.
  3. Access agreements agreed between universities and OFFA should include an explicit commitment to proven outreach work such as summer schools and mentoring schemes – perhaps 25% of extra fee income or more, depending on the extent of the under-representation of certain groups of students.
  4. Universities should agree targets with the OFFA for a five year period, covering a basket of new measures for widening participation more generally into higher education, and ensuring fair access into their own university.
  5. If universities fail to meet a proportion of their basket of measures over consecutive years, as a final step a proportion of their fee income should be diverted to a central access fund (possibly the Government’s national scholarship programme).
  6. As part of their access agreements, every university should take into account the educational context of applicants to inform its admissions policies – and develop and publish its own evidence on the degree outcomes of students from different school backgrounds.