Impact Goal Five

Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25% most selective universities


The Gap

According to Alliance measures, the gap of 17% between the proportion of pupils from low income and high income families going on to university has closed by one percentage point.


The National Picture

The proportion of pupils from poor families entering university has increased each year since 2004 when 13% went on to higher education, but so has the proportion of more advantaged young people, and the gap between the two groups remained at 18% for the previous five years. However, data for 2012/13 shows this gap is now closing, with 23% of young people from poor families entering higher education in comparison to 40% of their better-off peers. Only 7% of the UK population attend fee-paying schools, yet 85% of all A Level students at these schools progressed to higher education in 2012/13, compared to 63% attending non-selective state schools. In addition, young people from independent schools were three times more likely to attend a high tariff university than their peers at non-selective state schools; this gap has widened over the last three years.

An examination of university entry rates for 18 year olds by low/high income areas also shows an increase of young people from low income areas; in 2015, these young people were 0.7 percentage points more likely to enter higher education than in the previous year. Although young people in higher income areas are still more likely to enter university than those living in low income areas, this gap is closing. In 2014, young people from less affluent areas were 2.5 times less likely to enter university than their peers in more advantaged communities, a decrease from 2.8 times in 2013. In 2015, this ratio decreased again to 2.4 times. However, attention should also be paid to multiple equality dimensions. Young people from the most disadvantaged quintile on all measures were only 0.3 percentage points more likely to enter university in 2015 than in 2014. This compared to 1.1 percentage points for their more advantaged peers. On this multiple dimension measure, the most disadvantaged group are the least likely to go to university and their position has improved the least. The entry ratio for this measure remained at 3.2 in 2015, which means the gap has stayed the same.

These figures should also be viewed in the context of the changing qualifications landscape. In 2015, more 18 year olds than ever before entered university holding only BTECs as their main qualification; since 2010 the number in this group has increased at a faster rate than that of those entering with only A Levels as their main qualification. Although this increased across all high and low POLAR 3 participation areas in the last year, the highest increases were in low participation areas.

However, the figures for those entering the most selective universities are less encouraging. In 2012/13, 19% of young people from poor families went on to a less selective university, compared to 28% of their better-off peers, but young people from this background were three times less likely to study at a selective university than their more affluent peers.

In 2015, young people from poor families were more than three times less likely to go to a high tariff university than their more advantaged peers. Although this gap has increased only slightly during the year (by 0.1%), over the last three years it has widened by 0.4%, whilst the gap has been closing over the past three years for young people from poor families attending medium (0.2%) and low (0.3%) tariff universities. These access gaps remain stubbornly high.

Young people living in the most advantaged communities are over six times more likely to go to a high tariff university than their peers living in the most disadvantaged communities. In other words, just over one in five from the most advantaged group went to a high tariff university, in comparison to one in 30 from the most disadvantaged. Since 2011, the entry rate for the most advantaged has increased by 2.8 percentage points, whilst that for those living in the least advantaged areas grew by only 0.9 percentage points.


The Regional Picture

The national picture is promising, with more young people from poor families going on to university overall. However, the regional picture is variable. In the South East, the South West, the North East and the East Midlands, only 15% of all young people who were claiming free school meals at age 15 went on to higher education. This compared with inner London where 41% of young people in this group took up a place at a university. There are many factors contributing to the continuing success of London but prior attainment at KS2 and KS4 is critically linked.

In 2013, young people from poor families in London were more likely than those from poor families in any other part of England to go to university. In the North East, the South East, the West and the East Midlands, young people from poor families were over two and a half times less likely to access higher education than those from poor families in London. Although these gaps have closed by 1 percentage point in the South East and South West, they still remain too high. Entry to university across low income areas of England stands at approximately 20% of the young population; this compares to an entry rate of 60% for those in more advantaged areas.

The chances for young people from poor families of entering a Russell Group university are also very low; they are almost two and half times less likely to do so than are their more affluent peers; this gap has widened by 1 percentage point since last year. In the South East, they are four times less likely than their more affluent peers to enter a Russell Group University; this is the highest gap across England.

It is also the case that entrants from areas of low participation are also more likely to drop out after their
first year at university than are those in high participation areas. Those from schools serving low income communities who went to a Russell Group university in 2009/10 were over 1.5 times more likely to leave their course after the first or second year than their peers from schools serving high income communities.


Closing the gap

Low attainment throughout school is a key determinant of future trajectories. As this report has shown, low attainment at each phase of education is more prevalent amongst young people from poor families. Even where such young people do succeed at school, some lack the means to realise their aspirations; this is perhaps reflected in the smaller proportion of young people from poor families who apply to Russell Group universities. Even with good grades in the right subjects, they are less likely to apply than are their more advantaged peers. This situation is often compounded by poor advice and/or badly completed application forms. However, intervention at the right time can make a big difference to the academic and longer term careers of children and young people.

The Alliance has identified areas where solutions can be found to narrow this gap in higher education. These include developing quality teaching and learning, providing good information advice and support, improving the use of contextualised data and university outreach activities.