Are top universities really for everyone? | Varsity Education

Are top universities really for everyone?

According to the BBC’s coverage1 of the Department of Education 2014 report in January, out of the thousands of schools and colleges across the UK, over 1600 do not have pupils going on to study at Oxbridge, with about 335 of them not sending any pupils on to a Russell Group university.

These figures are controversial, as only 48% of state school students versus 60% of privately educated pupils went on to university. On top of this, 46% of those privately educated students joined universities ranked in the top third. This is compared to just 16% of state school educated university students, figures which are backed up by the UCAS End of Cycle Report 2014. 2

However, these figures can also be seen as heartening as they reflect an 11% increase 3 in the number of state school students getting into top universities from previous years, undeterred by the rise in tuition fees.

The gap in university access between advantaged and disadvantaged students seems to be closing. This is very important news for gifted students from less privileged backgrounds.

There are several factors that are believed to have influenced this trend, some of which are:

State School Students Obtaining Higher Grades

The most obvious factor that may be directly linked to this trend is the gradual increase in students obtaining higher grades 4 in their exams. Better grades inevitably leads to students aiming higher, and according to UCAS figures at least a third of students are already receiving up to five offers for university places.

‘Lifting the Cap on Aspiration’ In the 2013 Autumn Statement, George Osborne surprised many by announcing a lift of the numbers of students England’s universities can admit.


This change allows universities to expand even further should they want to. In 2014, 30,000 more student places were allocated and this year the cap on student numbers will be abolished altogether.

Earlier this year, Universities Minister Greg Clark stated:

Higher education is a transformational experience and that is why we are the first government to remove the limit on student numbers lifting the cap on aspiration. 5

Fees and Meritocracies

Contrary to what some feared, increased fees for university courses haven’t deterred students from applying. It could even be argued that an increase in fees has actually improved access to education.

Any university planning to charge more than £6,000 a year has to sign an “access agreement” requiring them to spend around a quarter of the income raised on supporting poorer students in waivers and bursaries.

It’s worth remembering that tuition fees at the top tier universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, are actually no higher than any other UK university.

One should also take into account that there are extra scholarships and bursaries available for students from low income households. It is estimated that about one in three Russell Group attendees receive scholarships or bursaries that never have to be repaid.

Staying in tune with this movement, Oxbridge and other top universities are shedding their stereotypical image as dusty and elitist establishments.

Instead they are actively promoting their meritocratic ‘anything is possible and you are judged on your abilities not income’ admission policies.

Dr Wendy Plaitt, Director General of the Russell Group, states:

Money worries shouldn’t stop anyone from applying: there are no up-front fees, repayments are only made when they’re affordable and there is generous help with living costs.


It is undoubtedly something to take great pride in that our leading universities charge no more than their competitors and that anyone, advantaged or disadvantaged, is capable of accessing the same levels of world-class education.

Top universities really are becoming a destination for everyone, no matter what you may have read elsewhere.

As Dr Plaitt puts it:

Every student with the talent, potential and ability to succeed at a Russell Group university should apply. If you’re good enough to get in, you can afford to go.

Want to help your child succeed with their application to a top university? Take a look at our 2 week summer programmes in Oxford and Cambridge! Just like the universities themselves, we offer scholarships and bursaries for our programmes. Find out more here.