Why We Need a Quota for Students From Deprived Backgrounds in Universities

James Prentice argues for the introduction of a quota to increase the number of students from a deprived background attending top universities

The Fabians have a long history of resisting inequality, indeed one of our core aims is to find ways to reduce inequality within British society. Inequality around education has often been a Fabian concern, and we should now draw our attention to inequality at the highest level of education, top ranking universities. Proportionally, top universities take fewer children from state schools and deprived backgrounds than universities ranked in the lower half of the league tables. Out of university applicants, just over 90% of these applications are from state schools, but only 79.7% of successful applications to Russell Group universities come from state students. An average of 12% of successful university applications come from students with a deprived background, but this is below 8% for Russell Group and the top 25 ranked universities. Yet, the further down the league table you go the more students from deprived backgrounds you will find, with just under one in five students attending the bottom-ranked universities being recorded as coming from a deprived background, see image one.

Image 1 – Percentage of students coming from deprived backgrounds. Source:  Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Why is this a problem? This matters as the top and most influential positions in society tend to be restricted to individuals from these universities. Therefore, the question needs to be asked: are we getting the best people into these top positions or is there an element of people being able to pay for access? Given that talent is spread evenly across society and that private school and non-deprived pupils are disproportionately getting into these universities there is a strong likelihood that people of talent may not get a place at the top because of barriers placed upon them from their disadvantaged economic background.  Crucially, not only is there a value argument but there is also an economic argument the Fabians should be making. If we are not fully utilising talent across society this does limit how productive an economy we can have and how productive a nation we can be. Therefore, unlocking our productivity puzzle must require higher levels of social mobility and this can be done by getting more students from deprived backgrounds into university, especially the top-ranking ones.

To fix this, there should be a quota system that would require the top universities to accept a more proportionate number of students from deprived, state school and non-state backgrounds. Because the rate of application is lower from state schools than compared to private schools, it is currently estimated roughly 10% of new first-year university students come from private school backgrounds. Therefore, a target of a maximum of 10% could be set for non-state school applicants, with 90% going to state school applicants. Currently, as only 79.5% of new university students attending the top 25 ranked universities are from state schools, this policy would produce just over a 10% increase. 

A new government could increase the proportion of students coming from deprived backgrounds by focusing on a measure called low participation neighbourhoods, also known as the POLAR4 measure. Table one demonstrates that the national average of new students that come from these areas of education deprivation is 12%, whilst the top universities new intake coming from deprived backgrounds is only 7%. Therefore, based on this measure, the new quota could be a minimum of 12%.  As the lower-ranked universities contain far more students from a deprived background, there are enough of these students applying for top-ranked universities to take - it is just that these students are not currently being selected by top universities.


Percentage from deprived

Percentage from state education

Difference to average - Poor

Difference to average - State

National Average




Russell Group Average





Top 25 Average





Ranked 30-60





Ranked 60-90





Ranked 90-130





Table 1: Source: Proportion of new university students coming from deprived backgrounds and state schools in 2021 by university ranking group. Source: Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The main positive about this policy is that it would be relatively cheap to implement. Consequently, in an era of squeezed budgets, it could be a positive practical change to tackle education inequality.

James Prentice has been a Labour Party member for 11 years and a Fabian member in the Hastings & Rye area for 5 years. He has recently finished a PhD in British politics at the University of Sussex, specifically he researched changes in voting behaviour since Brexit. 
His writing interests particularly involve trends in voting behaviour, inequality, institutional reform and the state of public services, as well as policy solutions to inequality. 
He regularly posts blogs on these subjects on his website https://www.capturepolitics.co.uk/blog, and tweets @JamesPrentice93
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