Joseph Lee reports
The extent of the class divide in university entrance has been revealed in a new report, showing that pupils from the wealthiest areas are six times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England studied how many 18 and 19-year-olds took up university places between 1994 and 2000, measuring the gap between the poorest fifth of wards and the most affluent.
It found that summer birthdays and gender also have a significant effect on a child's likelihood of studying for a degree.
In areas such as Kensington and Chelsea in west London and Sheffield's suburban south-west, 70 per cent of young people went on to university.
But in 40 wards in places such as southern Bristol and inner-city Leeds, fewer than 5 per cent of pupils entered higher education.
Mark Corver, the report's author, wrote: "There is a high degree of inequality in the chance of young people entering higher education depending on the neighbourhood where they live."
Although the study was not intended to explain the gap, it said that poorer families were likely to live in cramped conditions and attend low-attaining schools, with parents in manual jobs who had no experience of university.
Significantly, it showed that inequality increased over the six years, with London raising its university student numbers by 6 percentage points, while areas such as the north-east of England stood still.
The report said the effect of tuition fees and abolition of student grants was "insignificantly small", and there was no statistical evidence that it had contributed to inequality.
A gender gap is also growing. The women were 18 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men in 2000, a figure which rose to 29 per cent in disadvantaged areas.
Men were also less likely to complete their university studies, the report found.
Being born in September gives pupils an advantage, making them 20 per cent more likely to go into higher education at 18 than those with summer birthdays.
But the growth in the number of sixth-formers progressing to university has almost stalled after a doubling of the student population in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The proportion rose by just two percentage points over six years, making the government target of giving half of all 18 to 30-year-olds a university education by 2010 even harder to meet.
Tessa Stone, director of the Sutton Trust education charity, said: "We see it time and again that there are self-reinforcing pockets of areas where it is very difficult to have an impact. Partly, it's because of the enormous difficulties being faced by some schools.
"When schools are dealing with issues of severe under-achievement as well as deprivation, the extra scope for stretching the brightest children is very limited. They are really fire-fighting."
Universities must be encouraged to invest in long-term relationships with schools over three or more years to help create a culture where students aspire to higher education, Dr Stone said.
Young participation in higher education is available from www.hefce.ac.uk