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Upending the rankings: Benchmarking widening participation in universities

  • 5 April 2018

HEPI is today publishing a new Policy Note, Benchmarking widening participation: how should we measure and report progress?, written by Professor Iain Martin, Vice-Chancellor at Anglia Ruskin University, which looks at each university’s success in widening participation and ensuring access to people from all backgrounds.

The paper puts forward a new measure of equity in participation, which demonstrates graphically the most equal – and most unequal – HE institutions in the UK.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

This analysis reveals which universities reflect wider society best, and those which have further to travel. It remains surprisingly controversial with some people to suggest that our oldest universities should mirror our society more closely.

Yet everyone benefits when there is the best possible fit between individuals and institutions. For example, learning outcomes are better when students from diverse backgrounds study alongside each other. On these sorts of issues, policymaking on schools can sometimes seem ahead of what goes on in the university sector.

Tackling the challenge is fraught with problems. The biggest obstacle is probably a fear among parts of society that have historically dominated our most selective universities that they could be squeezed out. That is one reason why the best way to deliver fairer access to selective institutions is the same as the best way to deliver widening participation overall, which is to provide more places.

Iain Martin, Vice Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University and the author of the report, said:

Widening participation and ensuring that students from all backgrounds are provided opportunities to study at a university that matches their talents and aspirations has been a pivotal part of English higher education policy and strategy for many years.

While much has been achieved, it remains that we do not have an educational level playing field. Benchmarking fair and equitable participation using the Gini index – a well-understood and recognised measure of the equitable distribution of resource – provides a single way to measure our transition to a higher education system where all students attend a university that matches their talents and aspiration. It also avoids perpetuating clustering based on past socio-economic characteristics.

Note for Editors

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.


  1. Hilarion says:

    It’s keele university not the university of keele

    1. The institution’s Royal Charter states: ‘There shall be and there is hereby constituted and founded in Our County of Stafford a University by the name and style of “The University of Keele”‘.

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