The North East’s top universities are becoming more exclusive - despite attempts to open their doors to pupils from every walk of life.
The proportion of undergraduate students who attended state school has actually fallen at both Durham and Newcastle universities, with a new study revealing they had the biggest drop nationally over the last decade.
The failure of leading universities to become more representative of the nation as a whole was highlighted yesterday in a report by the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
The commission looked at the progress made by Britain’s 24 leading universities, known as the Russell Group, in ensuring they were open to young people regardless of their social background or family income.
Many universities revealed that the proportion of students educated at state schools had fallen – and Durham and Newcastle had the largest falls in the country.
At Durham University, the number of new full-time undergraduates beginning their studies in 2011 who attended state schools was 59.2% of all new undergraduates, down from 68.4% in 2002.
This is lower than at any university except Oxford or Cambridge. It means four out of 10 Durham students went to an independent school.
At Newcastle University, the number of new full-time undergraduates beginning their studies in 2011 who attended a state school was 69.2% per cent, a fall of 4.6% from the 2002 levels.
The report warns that the number of state school pupils was low even after taking into account the fact that young people at independent schools were statistically likely to get better grades.
Durham University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Tom Ward, said: “Durham University aims to select the brightest and best students on the basis of their merit and potential, irrespective of background.
“The figures highlighted by the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission’s report appear to show a downward trend for widening access at Durham University. This is not the case.
“We are confident that the next round of figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, due to be published next March, will show some improvement in this key statistic.
“It does take time for all of the hard work and investment put into this area to realise benefits, and we are delighted that these improvements are starting to bear fruit.”
Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, said: “Newcastle University works hard to attract applications from state-school students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have won national recognition for our aspiration-raising work with schools and colleges.”
She added: “The many factors which lead to the under-representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be solved by universities alone. Ultimately, too few students from some state schools get the right grades in the right subjects and even those who do are less likely to apply to leading universities. ”
Former Darlington MP Alan Milburn, who chairs the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said: “Durham and Newcastle universities have both worked hard to attract more state school and low income youngsters. But these figures show they need to redouble their efforts.”
The report called on universities to set targets for the proportion of state-educated students they will take.
It also urged the Government to improve the National Scholarship Programme, which provides grants to students from poorer backgrounds.