An Oxford university is struggling to meet targets for widening participation, according to the latest set of official statistics – but it’s not the university you might think.
Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that Oxford Brookes University admitted a higher proportion of privately educated undergraduates than most other UK universities, and more than some highly selective institutions such as the London School of Economics.
Oxford Brookes – founded in 1865 and now with 18,000 full and part-time students – also has the widest gap between the number of state-educated students it admits and benchmarks produced by higher education statisticians that model what an institution’s student body should be like given subjects studied, entry qualifications, age and ethnicity of applicants.
While Hesa’s benchmark predicts Oxford Brookes to have 91% of its students from state schools, the former polytechnic only recruited 68% from state schools in 2018-19, a gap of 23 percentage points – the highest among mainstream universities.
In comparison, the University of Oxford’s benchmark for state school pupils was 73% but it admitted 61% last year, for a gap of just 12 percentage points.
The figures suggest Oxford Brookes is still struggling to formulate new access and participation plans to satisfy the Office for Students, the higher education regulator for England. In 2018 the OfS imposed a specific condition on Oxford Brookes over its failure to improve recruitment from under-represented groups.
A spokesperson for the university said: “Oxford Brookes remains committed to ensuring fair access to higher education. We are actively working to improve access for under-represented groups, and although we have seen progress, with increased enrolments from UK black and minority ethnic students, we accept that there is more to do.
“In addition to setting ambitious targets within our next access and participation plan, we continue to build on work launched over the last 18 months, such as a substantial extension to our schools partnership work – aiming to engage 800 state schools across a broad geographical region – and targeted programmes.”
Oxford Brookes’s private-state gap put it in the company of Exeter University, whose 65% state-educated students was far below its benchmark of 81%, and Bristol University, with just 67% from state schools and an 80% benchmark.
Other selective Russell Group universities boasted far better records, including the University of Manchester and the University of Glasgow, which both recruited more state school pupils than their benchmarks, while the University of Warwick came close to meeting its 80% benchmark.
But the Hesa figures showed that Russell Group members – including Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick universities – were among the least likely to admit undergraduates from areas with little or no previous participation in higher education.
The national figures showed a slowdown in progress in recruiting and admitting students from low participation regions. Across the UK, 11.4% of young first-time undergraduates were from deprived areas, the same as the previous year. At universities in England the proportion was 11.4%, fractionally higher than the year before, while in Wales it was static at 13.1%.
The OfS said: “Despite significant efforts and investment over many years this data shows only a modest improvement in the rates of disadvantaged students entering higher education in 2018-19.
“On the other hand, the latest Ucas data, for students who began their courses last autumn, suggests a welcome upturn in progress.”
The OfS wants Engand’s most selective universities to increase recruitment from disadvantaged areas by 6,500 from 2024-25.
A spokesperson for Universities UK said institutions in England had set “ambitious targets” to widen access.
“We know that more people are applying to university, and the gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged applicants is at a record low, but there is a shared will in the sector to see gaps narrow further,” UUK said.
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