Among Russell Group, Durham ranks second-worst in ratio of independent to state school students

By Ben Sladden

Recent data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) highlight Durham University’s as being one of the worst performing UK universities in its ratio of independent to state-school students.

Of Russell Group universities, Durham was shown to be the second worst university with just 60.5% of its total intake of full-time first degree entrants coming from state schools for the 2015/16 admissions cycle — a fall from the previous year.

The University of Cambridge took more state-school students as a proportion of their total cohort, with their intake being 61.9%. Nationally, almost 90% of UK-domiciled young, full-time first degree entrants are from state schools.

Earlier in the month, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education), Professor Alan Houston, responded to the latest figures as being “disappointing and unusual.”

Reports from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) report a correlation between areas in which students don’t attend university and deprivation, with many of these areas located in the North East.

In a statement, the University’s stated its commitment “to encouraging the very best and the brightest students, regardless of background, to come to Durham.”

However, Durham accepted just 155 students from areas of low participation in the 2015/16 admissions cycle, according to HESA — 5.1% of its intake of undergraduates.

However, Durham accepted just 155 students from areas of low participation in the 2015/16 admissions cycle, according to HESA—5.1% of its intake of undergraduates.

The Pro-Vice-Chancellor stated Durham has invested over £10 million to “help students meet upfront costs and to deliver access, student success, and progression activities” for the 2016/17 academic year.

The University’s Supported Progression scheme was highlighted in the statement, with Professor Houston pointing out how the programme — which provides academically talented students in the North-East, Cumbria, and Yorkshire additional help and support in applying to Durham — has trebled between 2011/12 and 2016/17.

Attention was also drawn to the University’s cooperation with the Sutton Trust, an organisation which seeks to improve social mobility by focusing on opportunities of young people from non-privileged backgrounds.

HESA’s statistics do not, however, reveal if the problem is not enough state-school applicants applying or the application process itself.

However, figures from the 2013/14 admissions cycle do show that students from independent schools were 6% more likely to be given an offer than applicants from state schools.

A study carried out last year by Durham University academics found that independent school pupils receive an educational boost equivalent to two extra years of schooling over their state-school peers. This translated as an advantage worth two-thirds of a GCSE.

Recent research, highlighted by the Sutton Trust, has demonstrated white working-class boys’ comparative underachievement in secondary education, as well as low levels of this demographic going onto take AS or A-levels. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has stated that only 10 per cent of young British white men attend universities.

The group Durham for Accessible Education, described as “a campaign group set up to highlight issues relating to financial inequality,” ran a testimonial series on Facebook, with students anonymously sharing their experiences of financial difficulty at Durham, some experiencing social isolation and emotional distress emanating from financial difficulties. Included in the testimonials were prospective Durham students who felt “priced out” of attending the University.

One testimonial reads: “I never expected to struggle as much as I have at Durham. I just assumed that with my food given to me in college, I wouldn’t need to spend too much money — but everyone always is and I was just expected to do it too.

“It gets tiring and upsetting continually refusing invitations to formal, or going out.”

“It gets tiring and upsetting continually refusing invitations to formal, or going out.”

Freshers applying will usually may face accommodation costs of £ 7,171 a year for catered accommodation. Many students therefore may have to seek financial support from family, or work during term-time to attend the University. A recent survey showed that 65% of students have to seek support from their families during times of financial difficulty.

Durham for Accessible Education have claimed that when using the University’s Minimum Expenditure Figures and the cost of a standard, catered room, the minimum expenditure for a basic standard of living amounts to £8,548, which is higher than the maximum maintenance loan.

The Durham University Labour Club states that it “believe[s] Durham University has a long-term issue with access for working class students.” The student group has highlighted Maintenance Grant cuts, hiked tuition fees, and rising accommodation costs as making Durham “a far less appealing destination for many bright, poorer students.”

Durham Young Greens hosted an event earlier this month, under the auspices of a tongue-in-cheek ‘celebration,’ protesting the Vice-Chancellor’s annual salary of £231,000.

An online petition created on Charge.org with 1,152 signators demands a reversal of Durham University’s planned tuition fee increase which will see tuition fees rise to £9,250 for the academic year of 2017/18.

The University Labour Club has said that the shortcomings in the admission of state-school pupils may also stem from an “image problem.”

Durham is often branded as “elitist,” together with other traditional institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.

A 2010 story in The Guardian by a Durham student entitled “Elite universities: a clash of cultures and cutlery” spoke of the archaic traditions of universities like Durham as alienating for students from working-class backgrounds.

Part of the University’s new plans for its strategy for improving access for the 2017/18 year includes plans to make greater use of targeted offers and contextual data to target disadvantaged students.

The ACORN postcode system is a means by which prestigious universities flag up applications from disadvantaged areas.

Durham’s ACORN data for 2014/15 shows only a marginal improvement of 0.5% in its enrolments of students from postcodes classified within the two highest categories of disadvantage.

The University has, however, offered bursaries to students who progress from the Supported Progression scheme, as well as to students whose parental income is below £25,000 per year.

Photograph: Durham University

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