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HEi-think: Tackling the North-South access divide

Sutton Trust Chief Executive Dr Lee Elliot Major calls for a more coordinated and concerted effort to widen participation in higher education after a study found a North-South divide in the number of school leavers gaining places at leading universities.


New analysis by the Sutton Trust for The Times has highlighted the stark North-South divide that persists in university access, particularly to our most selective universities.

Addressing this access gap will require much stronger co-ordination between the wide range of access and outreach initiatives currently on offer, together with improvements in school and college results to match what has happened in London over the last decade. Our analysis showed that all but one of the 20 councils that send the most state-school children to the top universities in England are based in London or the south, whereas the 20 authorities that send the fewest number to the top 30 universities are mainly in the north and the Midlands.

The data - which was based on university entrants in 2012 published by the Department for Education last year, showed Reading, Sutton and Buckinghamshire had the highest proportions of state school and college students  going on to a top university. Fourteen of the top authorities are in London, reflecting the recent improvement in schools in the capital.

These figures show that your chances of getting to a great university aren't just a matter of family background, but also of where you go to school. London has benefited from a lot of programmes and attention over the years, and we need that attention to spread across the country, particularly to the North and to coastal towns, if young people are to improve their chances of getting a good degree and progressing to a good career.

This analysis follows other Sutton Trust research published last year which has shown that in 2011, five elite schools and colleges send as many young people to Oxbridge each year as 1800 other state schools and colleges across England. Indeed, just 40 schools and colleges provided about a quarter of all Oxbridge entrants that year - showing the extent to which a tiny minority of the country's 2750 schools and colleges dominate
enrolment at prestigious universities.

Improving access is about more than money. Collectively universities spend over £700 million on access initiatives and fee subsidies. And reaching able students from low and middle income backgrounds is key: a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) last year showed that state school students gain better degrees than students with the same prior attainment from independent schools.

Our summer schools help around 2,000 students each year with residential programmes at ten top universities. Our teacher summer schools give state school teachers a chance to see what Cambridge and Durham are really like since polling for us by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests reluctance among many to advise bright students even to apply to Oxbridge.

Individually universities have lots of their own programmes as do other organisations. But there needs to be much better co-ordination of what's happening, so it is vital that that new outreach networks being developed by HEFCE do more to co-ordinate outreach programmes, particularly for top universities, making it easier
for teachers and students to know what's available. That is vital for social mobility.



jovannig / 123RF