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Research excellence and widening access are not mutually exclusive

  • 21 August 2022
  • By Dr Maggie Leggett

This blog has been written by Dr Maggie Leggett, the Director of External Relations at Queen Mary University of London

Any suggestion that Russell Group universities pay only lip service to widening access is just wrong. At Queen Mary, 92 per cent of our home undergraduate students are from state schools, 49 per cent are the first in their family to enter higher education and 35 per cent are from households where the annual taxable income is less than £20k. These students go on to succeed in their chosen careers – which is why Queen Mary was named the country’s top university for social mobility in a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in partnership with the Sutton Trust Education in 2021. Our research is excellent, as would be expected from a member of the Russell Group: we ranked 7th in the UK for the quality of our research in the Research Excellence Framework 2021.

Our success in widening access has not happened by accident – it is the result of a deep, University-wide commitment, and enduring, close relationships with schools. We are proud to sponsor two multi-academy trusts and work very closely with both of them. It is fantastic to see schools in both these trusts improving their results, and their Ofsted classifications, over the last few years. We continue to work very hard with these schools and it is through these relationships we can work with primary school students – on a wider scale, such work would not be practical. 

Outside of those relationships, we have strong and deep relationships with a range of secondary schools and colleges. Our offer to schools and colleges, easily accessible on our website, is segmented based on the needs of the school, and the make up of their communities. We work most closely with schools which have a high proportion of students typically under-represented in higher education, based on acorn data and proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals. The offer itself has been co-created with the schools, and is evidenced based: we use the NERUPI framework to evaluate all our interventions, and HEAT to track progress over time. 

Why are we so successful at widening access? We have heard it said that it is simply a result of geography, as we are situated in one of the most socio-economically deprived parts of London in an area where there are a number of good schools. We dispute this – many universities have socio-economically deprived communities close at hand, and high, and low, performing schools are distributed across the country – although the South East does have the upper hand in terms of school performance. We believe however that our success results from the importance we place upon this work. It is an intrinsic part of our University Strategy: our values inform all our work. Our commitment to social mobility and social justice is ingrained at Queen Mary, and is one of the reasons why it is such an attractive as a place to work. The four former institutions* from which Queen Mary was built shared a vision to bring hope and opportunity to marginalised communities. We continue with that vision today, and open our doors to anyone who has the potential to succeed with us.

There is always more to do. Last year, we launched a new access scheme to reach ‘cold spots’ – areas where there is a low rate of participation in higher education. That scheme is a partnership with schools, and aims to reach communities such as white working-class boys where across the country there is more to do in terms of increasing rates of participation in higher education. We are also increasing our work with care-experienced students, noting these students have one of the lowest rates of participation in higher education. More broadly, our offer to schools is refreshed annually, based on the feedback from partner schools, from the participants themselves and of course from our ongoing evaluation.

At Queen Mary we may be unusual in the extremely high value we place upon inclusion and social mobility. It is undoubtedly part of our DNA. But widening access and social mobility are close to the hearts of people working in universities across the UK – these are surely reasons why people are interested in working in higher education in the first place. There is always more to do, and with the demographic increase in 18-year olds coupled with ever-increasing interest in higher education and subsequent pressure on university places, we must re-double our efforts. It is such exciting and rewarding work, however tough it is, and an area where all universities can succeed. We must – and do – share best practice and work together, in partnership with schools and informed by the data. If we collaborate strategically across the secondary and tertiary education sectors, we can, and will, ensure that all young people have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.            

* Queen Mary University of London has its roots in four historic institutions: London Hospital Medical College (founded in 1785); St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College (founded in 1843);  Westfield College (founded in 1882); and Queen Mary College (founded in 1887 as the People’s Palace Technical Schools). All four institutions were founded to help the less privileged.

(Image By Ewan Munro from London, UK – Queens Building, CC BY-SA 2.0, from Wikipedia)


  1. Denis Blight says:

    Thank you. Unless I have missed it, you have not made reference to income levels of QMU nor to the level of full fee income from international students. How important has your total income including from international students been to the achievement of your successful strategies?

  2. John Anchor says:

    This is a very interesting study of Queen Mary. The title of the article is also manifestly true. However neither justify the first sentence of the article.

  3. RDJ says:

    Exactly this.

  4. 1. Scholarships details for international students are not clear.

    2. it would be easier if we get stats of other universities as a comparative data.

  5. Bushra Nasir CBE DL says:

    A great blog. Continue your great work, QMUL

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