Record numbers of pupils on free school meals are aiming to go to university this year – but they are still half as likely to apply as their more privileged peers.
Figures from university admissions body Ucas show that 14,230 students on free school meals in England applied for a place on a degree course from this autumn, compared with 8,720 six years ago.
This is the highest number yet recorded and represents a rise from 10.5 per cent of the total 18-year-olds receiving free school meals who applied in 2006, to 17.9 per cent who had submitted their application by the 24 March deadline this year.
But pupils not on free school meals are twice as likely to have university in their sights, with 37.1 per cent of the cohort putting in applications this year, itself a rise from 30.3 per cent eight years ago. The average across all students is 34.6 per cent, up from 27.7 per cent in 2006.
The obstacles facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds in getting access to higher education has become a controversial political issue in recent years. Last month it emerged that just 50 pupils on free school meals went to Oxford or Cambridge in 2011 – the latest year for which figures were available – compared with 60 from Eton alone.
Figures given in a parliamentary answer earlier this year showed that the 24 members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities admitted an average of 64 pupils who had been on free school meals in 2011.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has accused Oxford and Cambridge of bias against poor students and warned that they should be more reflective of British society if they are to continue to receive taxpayers’ money.
The Ucas figures also showed that women were more likely to apply to university regardless of their background. Among pupils on free school meals, 21.5 per cent of women applied, compared with 14.3 per cent of men, while for students not receiving free school meals the proportions were 42.4 per cent of women and 32.2 per cent of men.
Lee Elliot Major, director of policy and development at the Sutton Trust, which campaigns on social mobility, welcomed the increase in the number of pupils on free school meals applying, but said the disparity showed there was still much work to do.
“It is good that the numbers of disadvantaged students applying to university are growing, and the gap with other students has narrowed a little,” he said. “But there is still a significant gap, particularly pronounced with boys, and other data show the gap to be much wider at our most prestigious universities in both applications and entry.
“It is vital that schools continue to improve exam performance for disadvantaged pupils and that outreach work and access programmes, including summer schools, continue to engage with those from less privileged backgrounds from an early stage.”
Ucas also published figures on application rates among different ethnic groups, showing a large increase in the number of black students targeting higher education.
While 31.4 per cent of white 18-year-olds are aiming to go on to university this year, among Asian students it is 44.7, black students 39 per cent, students of mixed ethnicity 35 per cent, and Chinese students 60.9 per cent.
The biggest increase compared with the 2006 figures was among black students, from 23.6 per cent, the lowest of any of the major ethnic groups and below the 25.8 per cent English average, to 39 per cent this year, behind only Chinese and Asian students and above the national average of 33.2 per cent.
A study published earlier this week found that ethnic minority students were less likely than their white peers to receive university offers. The LSE research showed that while 71 per cent of applications from white British students resulted in the offer of a place, for Pakistani students it was just 52 per cent.