Proportion of poorer students at university stalls

Experts warn that 'slow progress' in widening access to university means bright disadvantaged applicants are missing out

Tes Reporter

A lack of progress in widening access to university has been revealed by new figures

The proportion of disadvantaged young people going to university in the UK has not increased, despite a continuing push to boost numbers.

New figures show that, of young people starting university in 2018-19, just over one in 10 were from areas of the UK where few pupils go into higher education – the same proportion as the year before.

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The data, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), shows wide variation between institutions - at some universities more than a quarter of students were from these areas, while at others the
proportion was less than 5 per cent.

Universities are under increasing pressure to improve access to higher education for different groups of students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Widening access to university

The latest statistics show that, in 2018-19, of all UK university entrants, aged under 21, starting their first, full-time undergraduate degree, 11.4 per cent were from "low participation neighbourhoods" – the places
with the fewest young people going into higher education.

This is the same proportion as in 2017-18, and up 0.2 percentage points from 11.2 per cent in 2016-17.

A breakdown by country shows that in England in 2018-19 the figure was 11.4 per cent, up from 11.3 per cent the year before. In Wales it remained static at 13.1 per cent, and in Northern Ireland it fell 0.1 percentage points to 9.8 per cent.

Data for Scotland was not available.

An analysis by university and college shows that, out of 161 institutions for which there are figures, almost one in five (19 per cent) – 31 in total –had less than 5 per cent of entrants in 2018-19 from low participation neighbourhoods.

Of these 31, seven were Russell Group universities. They are Warwick (4.9 per cent), Cambridge (4.2 per cent), Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (4 per cent), University College London (3.7 per cent), Oxford (3.7 per cent), King's College London (3.7 per cent) and Queen Mary, University of London (3.6 per cent).

There were three institutions on 0 per cent – all smaller, specialist colleges.

Excluding these, the Royal College of Music had the lowest proportion at 1.7 per cent, and of the large, mainstream universities, City, University of London was listed as having the smallest percentage at 2.4 per cent.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, England's higher education watchdog, said: "Despite significant efforts and investment over many years, this data shows only a modest improvement in the rates of disadvantaged students entering higher education in 2018-19.

"On the other hand, the latest Ucas data, for students who began their courses last autumn, suggests a welcome upturn in progress.

"The reality is that each year of slow progress is one where thousands of people with the ability to excel in higher education are missing out.

"That is why it is so important that all universities and colleges registered with the Office for Students have set out the work they will do over the next five years to cut deep-seated gaps in higher education access and outcomes between the most and least advantaged students."

Last month, the regulator warned that access to university has been a"postcode lottery" in the past, with young people from some English regions, such as the South West, much less likely to go into higher education.

It said the UK's most selective institutions have agreed tough targets  for the next five years as part of attempts to improve access, and that those that fail to do so could face sanctions, including financial penalties.

Dr Maria Neophytou, director of social mobility charity Impetus, said: "Today's figures show how little progress is being made to close the gap in university access between young people from poorer backgrounds and their peers.

"Over the last five years the gap has barely changed, yet universities are telling the Office for Students that over the next five years, they will halve this gap.

"A worthy ambition, but there simply aren't enough young people from disadvantaged backgrounds getting the grades they need.

"The danger is universities will end up fighting over the same pool of well-qualified young people, while very little is invested in widening that pool."

Cat Turhan, policy analyst at the Russell Group, said: "Focusing on progression for students from low participation neighbourhoods is of limited use in large urban areas such as London.

"This is because the vast majority of deprived young people live in neighbourhoods which are not classified as low participation.

"However, the latest data from Ucas for 2019 shows Russell Group universities are recruiting more students from low participation neighbourhoods, and offer-making to these students has risen by almost a third over the past five years.

"We know there is more work to do in addressing educational inequality.

"Our universities have set out bold and ambitious new plans to diversify their campuses and support all their students to reach their full potential."

James Turner, chief executive of the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, said: “Highly selective universities have made important steps forward in widening access in recent years, but this data highlights for many institutions there is much more to be done.

"We believe that universities should make greater and more ambitious use of contextual offers as an important way to improve access, recognising that the playing field at age 18 is far from level and potential isn’t always captured in grades."



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