Fewer students in the north are applying to university than the rest of England because of “school aspiration and attainment” in the region, the head of Ucas has said.
Clare Marchant, who took over as chief executive of the admissions body last summer, told Tes that teachers needed to instil “aspiration” in their pupils by talking to them about university as early as primary school.
Figures published by Ucas this month revealed that the proportion of young people applying to higher education in 2018 has reached a record high, with 37.4 per cent of English 18-year-olds applying by the admission body’s January deadline – a 0.4 percentage point increase on last year.
However, the national figure masks considerable regional variation – 47.5 per cent of 18-year olds applied to university in London, but just 31.7 per cent applied in the North East.
And while the proportion of students applying to university increased nationwide, it fell back in a number of regions. The application rate declined by 4.6 per cent in the North East and by 1.9 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber.
'Aspiration and attainment'
Asked by Tes what lay behind this pattern, Ms Marchant said: “It will be school aspiration and attainment, it’s as simple as that”.
Ms Marchant said the same thing applied to other regions which have historically sent fewer students to university, such as the South West, which last year had the lowest rate of 18-year-olds entering university.
“There were really stark differences between the south west at one end.... and London” she said. "A huge differential. Why is that? That has got to go back into school attainment and school aspiration all the way back into primary.”
"Even at Year 5 you have a clear indication of whether kids even have university as a potential aspiration”.
While some universities have started engaging pupils at primary level through their access programmes, Ms Marchant said schools also had to play their part.
“There is something about schools having that aspiration as well though, and teachers talking about it as a possible route.”
She said primary teachers should start talking to their pupils about university in Year 5 or Year 6.
“If you don’t set aspirations at that level, it’s very difficult then to come into Year 10, 11 and be setting those aspirations,” she said.