By Waseem Mohamed and Daniel Hodgson
New statistics show that Durham University admitted the lowest proportion of state-educated students in the 2020/21 academic year, compared to any other UK university.
Just 61.6% of the new cohort, who began their studies in the academic year 2020/21, was state-educated. This is significantly lower than the UK average, which shows that 90.2% of university attendees came from a state school or college.
Durham University responded by saying that they focus more heavily on increasing entrant numbers from postcodes with the lowest levels of participation in Higher Education, and as such admitted that they “do not set a target for state school entrants”.
Durham was joined by Edinburgh and Exeter in its low admission rates. Only two Russell Group universities in the UK admit higher proportions of state school students than the national average: Queen Mary University of London, and Queen’s University Belfast.
Durham has consistently taken on a disproportionate number of privately-educated students compared to the rest of the country. While only approximately 7% of the UK population are privately educated, the number of privately educated students taken in by Durham has ranged between 35-40% on average over the last few years.
While 2018/19 saw the figure for state school representation reach a maximum 65.7% at Durham, this upwards trend has been undone over the past couple of years, with the University’s state school intake now at its lowest level since 2017/18.
A possible reason for the drop in state school admissions is that Durham was one of the first universities to offer deferral bursaries to students. In August 2020, the University announced a ‘deferral bursary’ for undergraduate offer holders who met their Durham offer after they were awarded increased grades through the Centre Assessed Grades process.
The bursary came in the form of discounts on college accommodation fees up to the value of £1,500, based on a student’s household income. Recipients of the bursary with an annual household income below £25,000 received the maximum discount of £1,500, while those between £25,000 and £42,500 received £1,000 off their accommodation fees.
Students with a household income above £42,500 received a minimum £500 discount. This bursary discount or ‘’Transition Support’ fund was offered in addition to the existing Durham Grant.
The move sparked a 108% jump in deferrals that year, according to data obtained by Palatinate via a Freedom of Information request.
Both Oxford and Cambridge, who did not have comparable deferral schemes, had a higher intake of state school pupils in 2020/21 than Durham, reversing previous trends of Durham admitting a higher proportion state school students compared to Oxbridge.
This most recent set of data bucks the trend where Oxford had consistently taken fewer state school students than either Cambridge or Durham. After five successive years, Oxford significantly increased their state school standing in 2020/21, while Durham plummeted to the bottom of the rankings.
Commenting on the figures, Vice President of the 93% Club Durham, Keely Brown, told Palatinate: “Unfortunately, it’s hardly a surprise to us at the 93% Club that the acceptance of state school students at Durham stands at one of the lowest figures nationwide. Although only 7% of children in the UK attend a private school, the disproportionate intake of these students at Durham compared to other universities reinforces how it is by no means a level playing field.
“Whilst there is no one quick fix to this problem, one crucial issue that we believe needs to be resolved is the prior knowledge and experience that our university assumes all incoming students have. Left without support from their former secondary school, there is a trend that state school students in Durham are arriving isolated, unsure of how to tackle the jump of starting university.
“Especially coming out of Covid, many have no prior knowledge of what awaits them at university, let alone experiences of classism or discrimination, and alongside feelings of imposter syndrome it can feel like Durham isn’t the place for them. Several students consequently drop out, and an image of the University as elitist and ‘not the place for you’ is tragically reinforced more and more.”
A Durham University spokesperson said in a statement that “At Durham we aim to attract the brightest and best students, regardless of their background or financial circumstances, and our latest Access and Participation Plan is by far the boldest yet with demanding targets that we aim to meet.
“We actively seek to increase the proportion of entrants from the two postcode bands with the lowest proportions of young people taking part in Higher Education, and as such, do not set a target for state school entrants.
“According to the most recent HESA data, we have exceeded the set 7.3 per cent benchmark for the number of undergraduate degree entrants from the postcode band with the fewest young people taking part in Higher Education (Quintile 1). In 2020 – 2021, a total of 7.6 per cent of our undergraduate degree entrants came from this band with a further 13.6 per cent coming from Quintile 2.
“We run a number of successful schemes aimed at widening participation and actively encourage students from a broad range of backgrounds to apply to Durham, including those who are from underrepresented backgrounds. We also use contextual information to inform our offer making.
“However, we are not complacent and we are constantly making improvements to our admissions and support systems for all students, and especially for those who are under-represented in Higher Education.”
Image: Maddie Flisher