Record gap between rich and poor students winning university places

Concerns are also raised over a growing gender divide in university applicants, as the number of women taking up places soars

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Thursday 15 December 2016 00:59 GMT
In order to close the divide, an extra 40,000 students from the most disadvantaged social groups would need to be offered places at university next year
In order to close the divide, an extra 40,000 students from the most disadvantaged social groups would need to be offered places at university next year (Getty)

The gap between rich and poor students being granted university places has reached a record high, latest Ucas figures show, prompting fresh concerns over the “shameful” lack of social mobility within education.

Students who received free school meals – a long-time indicator of poverty – are less than half as likely to enter higher education than their more affluent peers.

Despite recent government efforts to improve access to education for disadvantaged young people, the gap between those being offered university places is now the widest ever recorded – a difference of 16.7 percentage points.

More 18-year-olds were offered university places this year than ever before, with entry levels among all social groups increasing overall over the past 10 years.

But while the number of students from more affluent backgrounds has climbed steadily, places offered to those from the poorest percentile have stalled in the past year.

The sudden halt in numbers follows a decision made by the Tory government last year to scrap student maintenance grants for pupils from lower income families.

Commenting on the widening gap, former Business Secretary Sir Vince Cable said: “The obvious explanation is the change in supporting students with grants for maintenance.”

He told The Independent: “The loss of that will undoubtedly have had a deterrent effect, because it directly affects the amount of cash people can expect at university level.”

The former MP said that while he was “not opposed in principle” to the conversion of grants into loans, students should be able to access “a significantly larger sum”.

“The fact that it’s at such a low level is a deterrent to people from low-income families,” he said.

“The other factor is we had a very active policy working through organisations to getting universities back to promoting social mobility and I suspect this is now being pursued less aggressively.”

He added: “Theresa May should surely take note of this as something that goes contrary to what she’s supposedly trying to achieve.”

The Ucas analysis also showed a pre-Brexit spike in the number of EU students accepting places at UK institutions, while overseas students entering higher education in the UK has dropped for the first time since 2011.

White, working-class boys are least likely to go on to higher education.

The gender gap between those accepting university places has also grown, with women now a record 35 per cent more likely to take places than men.

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner called the figures “bitterly disappointing”.

She told The Independent: “The ladder is being pulled up in the face of bright, talented, working-class kids who have the intellect and the ambition but lack the means to enter university.

“It is shameful that the gap is widening between rich and poor children entering university, and it means vice-chancellors must now look very seriously at the action they are taking to make our centres of learning much more accessible to students from poorer backgrounds.”

According to the figures, the university acceptance rate for more advantaged students is increasing around five times faster (up 1.4 percentage points to 32.8 per cent) than for their poorer peers who are on free dinners (up 0.3 percentage points to 16.1 per cent).

While this marks an all-time high for the amount entering university from both demographics, the difference in growth widens the gap between rich and poor to its largest since records began.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said that while it was positive to see the proportion of teenagers from the lowest social group entering university had doubled in the past decade, the widening access gap was “of particular concern”.

He said: “We need to see more access work – and better information for schools – if we are to see significant improvement in the numbers of less advantaged young people going to selective universities.”

Free-school-meal students make up between 12 to 15 per cent of state school students aged 15, according to Ucas analysts, but contribute to almost 60 per cent of the most disadvantaged group of children applying to university.

In order to close the divide, an extra 40,000 students from the most disadvantaged social groups would need to be offered places at university next year.

Chief executive of Ucas Mary Curnock Cook said: “When she entered Downing Street in July, the Prime Minister pointed out that white working-class boys are the least likely to go to university.

“Our report underlines this point, showing that nearly three quarters of the group least likely to enter university are men, most are from lower-income families, and nine out of 10 are in the White ethnic group.

“Although the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education has reached record levels again this year, there are early signals that the good progress made in recent years may be slowing down.

“The best way to get on track to better progress is to focus efforts on improving GCSE outcomes for all children which we know is the primary driver of increased entry rates to higher education.”

Ms Rayner added: “More needs to be done right across education to help white working-class boys in particular to get on in life and reach their full potential.

“That must start in the early years where we need much more focused provision and investment to try and get these boys on the right path. Otherwise we will be storing up problems for the future.

“One thing is for sure – more new grammar schools won’t make access any easier, nor increase social mobility.”

Responding to the report, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “It is welcome news that record numbers of students secured places at university this year and that people from disadvantaged backgrounds are now more than a third more likely to enter higher education than in 2010. However, we know there is more to be done if we are to truly make this a country that works for everyone.

“That is why this Government has put social mobility at the top of its agenda. Our reforms are raising standards – there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010 and through our Higher Education and Research Bill, we are ensuring all institutions go further and faster to promote social mobility.”

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