Higher (class) education

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
August 26, 2011, 12:01 AM GMT+0

More than half of British adults think that top UK universities are ‘mostly’ attended by people who went to private schools, our poll has revealed, in the same week as record high A-level and GSCE results come out across the country, and competition for University places increases.

When asked what proportion of people attending top British universities was from private schools or state schools, just 16% thought that people from both types of education were equally represented, while a similar number thought that top institutions are ‘almost only’ attended by people from private schools.

  • 54% of British people think that top universities in the UK are ‘mostly’ attended by people who went to private schools
  • 17% say top universities are ‘almost only’ attended by people who went to private schools
  • While 16% say private and state schooled people are equally represented at top universities
  • Just 2% of people thought they are mostly attended by people who went to state schools, while none said that are almost only attended by state schooled students

It was revealed last month that just five schools in England sent more pupils to Oxford and Cambridge – institutions often used as the benchmark against which to measure top universities –than nearly 2,000 others combined. School-by-school data gathered by the Sutton Trust charity showed ‘stark’ differences in entrants to the top universities.

BBC analysis of the data showed that private schools often get more pupils into top universities than state schools ‒ even those with similar results.

‘Less than 6% of available places’

More than half of our respondents thought top British universities are mostly attended by people who went to private school, and the data shows they may well be right. Four independent schools ‒ Eton, Westminster, St Paul's Boys and St Paul's Girls ‒ and state-funded Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, sent 946 pupils combined to Oxford and Cambridge between 2007 and 2009.

The Sutton Trust found that 2,000 lower-performing schools sent a total of 927 students altogether to the two elite universities, getting less than 6% of available places.

An image problem

However, earlier this year Cambridge University published figures showing that 59.9% of its 2010 intake was from the state system, while Oxford also revealed that 58.5% of its 2010 offers were sent to state-educated applicants (and also showed that over 64% of that year’s applicants were from state schools).

Despite this, however, with the percentage of pupils attending private school hovering around 7% nationally, it seems that the public’s suspicions of the makeup of top university intakes are not without foundation, and as our poll results suggest, top institutions could still have an image problem when it comes to attracting the best state school students over their thresholds.