Government orders Ucas to reveal data on poorer students in drive to boost social mobility

Minister urges body to publish offers of places broken down by ethnic group

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 09 September 2015 18:07 BST

The Government has ordered the body in charge of university admissions to reveal more of the data it holds on students from poor backgrounds to boost the drive to improve social mobility.

Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, has written to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) asking it to publish the offers of places broken down by ethnic group, which will reveal the most selective institutions. Under a new agreement with Government, Ucas will publish the data underpinning this work and extend its analysis to other disadvantaged groups.

The minister intervened after The Independent revealed last month that Ucas was under pressure from Alan Milburn, the social mobility watchdog, to make anonymised data available to academics. Ucas’s commercial arm raises £12m a year by selling information to companies such as drinks and mobile phone firms about students who give their permission.

Mr Johnson described higher education as “the most powerful driver of social mobility we have” and said Ucas should go further in future.

He told Universities UK’s annual conference at Surrey University: “To make our work on widening participation effective, we need the best possible data. Ucas in particular holds and publishes vast amounts of data on the outcomes of the admissions process, but to target widening participation efforts more effectively we need a better understanding of how students’ background, prior attainment and course choices lead to an offer of a place.”

The minister added: “I want to see much more data being made available for academics to analyse and potentially link with other data sets.” He welcomed Ucas’s decision to start sharing data through a secure platform as “an important step forward,” but added: “There will be more work to do to increase the data available and ensure the trust of students who are involved.”

Mr Milburn, the Labour former Cabinet minister who chairs the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, said: "It is very welcome that Jo Johnson is providing leadership on this, and these first steps represent good signs of progress.”

He added: “There is of course much more to do if this data is to be unlocked to the benefit of generations of disadvantaged children. As the Information Commissioner has made clear, it is perfectly possible to both protect the confidentiality of student data and allow these access issues to be fully analysed.”

Ucas insists it is committed to openness and widening access. Responding to Mr Johnson’s speech, Mary Curnock Cook, its chief executive, said: “I’m pleased that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has recognised the centrality of our data publications in shaping the understanding of higher education admissions over the past five years and the importance of our plans for further developments in this area.”

Youngsters from middle class families are seven times more likely to go to a top university than poor students. David Cameron has pledged to double the university entry rate among students from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020 from 2009 levels. He also wants to see a 20 per cent increase in the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020.

Only 10 per cent of white British boys from poor families go to university, making them five times less likely to do so than the most advantaged white boys. Participation rates are more than 20 per cent among boys of black Caribbean heritage, almost 50 per cent among boys of Indian heritage and more than 60 per cent among those of Chinese heritage.

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