Wealthier students were almost twice as likely to enter HE in 2019-20

15 Oct 2021, 6:00

The entry gap between disadvantaged and more affluent students is now the widest it has been in 15 years, writes Sam Tuckett

Enrolment into higher education is on the rise. Statistics published yesterday by the Department for Education show that the proportion of young people progressing into higher education in 2019-20, the year before the pandemic, was higher than ever before.

The increase seen in these statistics is a continuation of recent trends, with an ever-growing proportion opting for higher education (HE) since 2005/06.

Crucially, these students would have finished their 16-19 study and enrolled in HE prior to the pandemic, so their decisions will not have been affected by the different grading processes and economic uncertainty we have seen during the last 18 months.

However, although there have mostly been increases in HE take-up across the board, some student groups have made greater progress than others.

Over a quarter of students eligible for free school meals (a proxy for disadvantage) now go onto enrol in higher education. This is an increase from around 20 per cent in 2010-11.

In isolation this may seem a positive development – until you quickly see that the growth in the proportion of all other students entering HE has outstripped this.

In other words, the entry gap between disadvantaged and more affluent students is now the widest it has been in 15 years.

To think of this a different way, those from better-off backgrounds were over 1.7 times more likely to enter higher education in 2019-20 than those from more economically deprived backgrounds. And this ratio has been increasing.

The higher education disadvantage gap is even greater when we consider those that go on to enter higher tariff (more selective) institutions. Poorer students are only a third as likely as their better off peers to apply and secure a place.

Poorer students are only a third as likely as their better off peers to apply and secure a place

What also leaps out from the new data is the fact that, within the state school sector, HE uptake has increased since the previous year.

But this increase is more modest amongst A level students than when considering all students collectively, regardless of their 16-19 study programme.

This may suggest an increase in the number of students using applied general and other qualifications to progress into higher education.

But what yesterday’s statistics cannot tell us is how the pandemic may have affected these patterns.

UCAS data suggest HE entry has increased substantially over the last two years, resulting from the lack of good labour market alternatives, and the significant increases in grading resulting from the disruption to exams.

More broadly, our understanding of who won and who lost in 2020 and 2021 is still emerging.

Indeed, upcoming EPI research will investigate whether the greater increases in A level grades compared with other qualifications gave more academic students an additional advantage over vocational students when competing for HE places in 2020.

If this is the case, then we might also expect disadvantaged students to lose out, as they are more likely to take alternatives to A levels.

As disadvantaged students are already the equivalent of around 3 grades behind their better off peers during the 16-19 education phase, this is deeply concerning.

Only time will tell how post qualification admissions, minimum entry requirements, the introduction of T levels and the removal of applied general qualifications, not to mention the unequal impact of the pandemic, will piece together in terms of access for disadvantaged young people.

What is very clear is that for any significant improvements to take place at this stage in education, we must first tackle the differences in grades that young people achieve before progressing to university.

The evidence is clear that inequalities in education arise early on in a young person’s life – if the government wants make any progress in reducing the HE participation gap, and see better outcomes for the large proportion of students who do not opt for this path, it must focus its efforts more on narrowing gaps throughout compulsory education.

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