Comment Blog 11 February, 2019

Jump-starting HE access

Last week’s statistics, published by the Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA), shows the continued slow progress in improving access for disadvantaged students. Across the UK, 11.6 per cent of students were from a low-participation neighbourhood. This represents a 0.2 percentage point increase from the previous year.

The statistics are at odds with the Government’s determination to improve social mobility. Last year, Damian Hinds, Education Secretary, argued that there is a “moral imperative” to tackle social injustices and ensuring that everyone can succeed. In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May noted that white working-class boys are the least likely to attend university and claimed that she would make it her “mission” to make Britain a country “that works for everyone.”

Last week’s statistics show that in terms of access to university, there is still a long way to go. There are, however, a range of measures that could help to improve access for disadvantaged students.


The data used to measure disadvantage has long been a source of contention for universities. The Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) classification is often considered an unfair representation of access. It assesses the likelihood of young people from a certain area participating in higher education, based on previous participation rates of the location. As a result, it can group together people from various backgrounds, based on the area in which they live.

In urban areas, such as London, this can give an unfair assessment of local disadvantage. As many young people in London attend university, many of its areas are considered high-participation neighbourhoods. As these areas are often densely populated with people from a variety of backgrounds, it therefore fails to capture disadvantaged students.

POLAR is still used, however, because it uses non-sensitive data that cannot identify a young person and thus preserves privacy. Synthetic data, which provides an artificial sample of data with similar attributes to the original, could offer a more robust assessment of disadvantage without identifying individuals. The DfE could create a new indicator using synthetic data based on the sensitive attributes in the National Pupil Database, such as Free School Meal status and income deprivation.

A breakdown of spending

For universities charging tuition fees above the basic rate, they are mandated to set out plans for how they plan to improve access for disadvantaged students. In addition, they must provide information on how much they spend on access. Currently, however, there is no further breakdown of this spending and therefore, it is difficult to determine what initiatives are most effective.

With the Augar Review imminent, university spending is a hot topic. As part of the review, value for money and access are two of the key topics that are being assessed. This review provides an opportunity to address the money spent on access, in order to understand what works and what doesn’t. A clearer breakdown of spending, matched with data assessing the impact that spending has achieved, can help to inform future spending decisions.

Raising attainment

Improving access for disadvantaged students is not just the role of universities. As a lower proportion of disadvantaged students receive the necessary GCSE and A Level grades to attend top universities, it limits the pool of potential candidates. DfE statistics show that attainment for disadvantaged students is lower than that of their more advantaged peers. For example, in 2017, advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged students in their English and maths grades. To ensure that more disadvantaged students have access to top universities, therefore, it will require added focus on raising the attainment of these students at an earlier age.

Better Make Room

What is a concern, however, is that disadvantaged students are less likely to apply for top universities even if they have achieved the requisite grades. According to the Centre for Social Mobility, a young person’s social, cultural and educational background, such as parental experience of HE, can have an important impact on where a young person applies to university. In 2017, 16.9 per cent of Free School Meal students entered HE. However, only 2.5 per cent of disadvantaged students entered top universities.

A campaign is needed, therefore, to tackle this issue and ensure that disadvantaged students with high grades consider top universities. In America, the Better Make Room campaign, encourages disadvantaged students to apply for college with text reminders, workshops and financial advice. A similar campaign is needed in England to promote the idea that top universities are for everyone.

A collaborative approach

Universities, schools and government all have a role to improve university access for disadvantaged students. Using better data, breaking down spending, raising attainment at an earlier age and orchestrating a campaign to ensure disadvantaged students apply to top universities can all help to address the stagnating pace of change.