Opportunity for everyone


Universities transform lives. Going to university leads to new ways of seeing the world, to new horizons and networks, and to significantly enhanced job opportunities. Growing the number of students from diverse back​grounds is therefore crucial to increasing social mobility in the UK. ​

Over the last few decades, universities have increasingly focused on enabling access and promoting success for all students, regardless of their background. This means working to ensure that all students who are qualified and want to enter higher education have:

  • the chance to go to their choice of university, and that which enables them to fulfil their potential

  • the support required to complete their degree

  • equal chances of getting a first or 2.1

  • the support they need to go on to further study or a great job

Universities UK supports the work that universities are doing to address gaps in participation and outcomes for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. Our work is focused across all stages of the student journey, with projects designed to support access, retention, degree attainment and the employability of graduates.

We recognise there is still a long way to go, but above all, we need to know what works best to support meaningful change.

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We asked universities to tell us about their diverse and inspirational students. Here are just six...

  • Born in the UK to Somali parents, Abdul never imagined where his university experience would lead. As President of the University College London Somali Society, Abdul helped lead a campaign that raised nearly £60,000 to build a school in Somalia. He​​ also represented the UK at the ‘One Young World Summit’ and now works as an Outreach Manager for Bright Education Centre.
  • A single mother from a village in South Wales, Kathryn enrolled at university after a 12-year absence from education. Despite juggling university with a young family, Kathryn excelled at her studies, winning the Mentor's Choice Award at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. ​​
  • Fatima is a Londoner of South Asian heritage, and was a first generation university student. She obtained a scholarship to study politics, and after graduating she embarked on a distinguished career in countering violent extremism, with her efforts recognised by The Asian Women of Achievement Awards.  
  • Norman, a single parent from Ullapool, left school at aged 16 with few qualifications. After starting work as a deep-sea fisherman, Norman later decided to return to education and studied nursing at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. Norman now works in the oil and gas sector as an offshore medic for Centrica.
  • Angelica's life completely changed when she decided to enrol at the University of Portsmouth. Having worked for nine years, she sold her house and worked part-time as a waitress to help cover the cost of going to university. The support she received from lecturers while studying helped her to realise her dreams.
  • Daniel spent some of his early life in foster care, a demographic that is heavily underrepresented at university. The support he received from staff while studying at university boosted his confidence and transformed his life, and he now works in healthcare. 

Download and share: student stories

In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than they were in 2006.

In addition, the number of full-time BME undergraduates at English universities has increased from nearly 200,000 in 2007–08 to nearly 300,000 in 2016–17, and black teenagers from England have never been more likely to go to university.

Despite these improvements, a number of challenges remain. Not all applicants have the same access to information, advice and guidance about the wide range of higher education opportunities on offer, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to get the grades they need to attend the most selective universities.

While at university, BME students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are also more likely to drop out. Recently the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds leaving university in their first year rose to 8.1%.

Students from underrepresented backgrounds are also less likely to get a first or 2.1 degree classification, regardless of their pre-university attainment. This issue is most acute for black graduates: in 2015–16, just 51% of black graduates studying in the UK got a first or 2.1, compared to 74% of white graduates. ​

Students from underrepresented groups are also less likely to be in a professional-level job, and likely to be paid less than their advantaged peers.

Universities recognise that more needs to be done to ensure equality of opportunity, and the following section explores some of the work that Universities UK and individual universities are implementing to meet these challenges head on. 

Download and share: the facts

In 2016 Universities UK put together a Social Mobility Advisory Group, consisting of vice-chancellors, school and college leaders, students, employers and third-sector organisations, alongside academics and practitioners working on widening participation.

The group focused its efforts on how universities can reduce inequality and promote opportunities for all, and produced a report​ making a number of practical recommendations to help address the inequalities that exist in higher education.

Universities UK is now taking that work forward and has specific projects designed to:

  • share best practice​ of how universities engage with and support schools to raise pupil attainment and aspiration

  • understand how universities support schools

  • support universities to contextualise an applicants' achievements

  • understand why students drop out of university and how to support them to stay on

  • understand the barriers to BME student success and how universities can overcome these, in collaboration with the National Union of Students

  • understand how universities can enhance and target their careers guidance and support to improve employment outcomes for students from underrepresented groups

  • inform the shape of Access and Participation Plans to ensure the new higher education regulatory framework places universities in the best possible position to make a step change in social mobility 

Underpinning it all, UUK developed a plan for a new 'what works' centre for widening access and participation in higher education; the Evidence and Impact Exchange. The purpose of this is to improve the way researchers, policy-makers and practitioners create, share and use high-quality evidence for decision-making in relation to widening access, participation and progression in UK higher education, and is now being taken forward by the Office for Students.

Improved access to this information will allow universities to target what they spend on their access and participation efforts  as effectively as possible.​​​​​​​​​​​​

Download and share: support systems​

Examples of what universities are already doing to help students reach their potential:

  • DRIVER​:​ a £1 million project led by Coventry University in the East Midlands to support students from non-traditional backgrounds when transitioning from college to university.

  • The University of Derby student attainment project, in partnership with Solent University and the University of The West of England, Bristol, which has closed the attainment gap between BME and white graduates.

  • The University of Exeter – Transforming Transitions: in partnership with the University of Birmingham, Loughborough University, and Queen Mary University of London, the project aims to aid the transition of BTEC students into higher education and improve retention and degree attainment.

  • Intervention for Success: a partnership between Coventry University, the University of Huddersfield, the University of Lincoln, and Manchester Metropolitan University, designed to support students at risk of leaving their university course or not achieving their potential. 

  • Changing Mindsets:​ a programme developed by the University of Portsmouth, now supported by the University of the Arts London, Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of Brighton, and the University of Winchester, that aims to close the attainment gap for BME students by developing student confidence and building a growth mindset.

  • University of Essex's VI6 programme, which brings together six schools and the university in jointly teaching eight A-level subjects that the schools would not be able to deliver themselves, to around 170 students each week – around half of whom are from a region that has some of the lowest rates of progression to university in the UK.

  • Nottingham Trent University (NTU) – Schools and Colleges Community Outreach: Their Students in Classrooms scheme provides pupil support for maths and literacy in the classroom, as well as one-to-one mentoring, helping to close the gap in educational achievements for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds – the scheme has reached over 30,000 pupils in its 12 years of operation.

  • Bath University’s ’On Track to Bath’, a two-year programme of activities for A-level students from underrepresented groups to support their entry to the University of Bath or other universities.

  • University of Manchester, Global Graduates: an exclusive programme for students at the university from lower socio-economic backgrounds, giving them the opportunity to meet with alumni in a host city across the world.

  • Sheffield Hallam – Global Mobility Bursary: The Careers Service at Sheffield Hallam University won a grant from the Cantor Trust to provide a Global Mobility Bursary to raise the aspirations of students and make global opportunities more accessible to them by providing a flexible bursary of up to £1,000. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

  • The University of Kent Student Success Project – an award-winning research project investigating student attainment and retention. ​


If you work at a UK university and want to spread the word about the work your institution is doing in this area, contact us​, and share details using #YesUniCan.​​​​​​​​