Dr Luke Heselwood, Report Author and Reform Researcher

The higher education sector has received considerable attention this week. The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ (IfS) report on the impact of undergraduate degrees on early-career earnings and Reform’s research on access to elite universities for disadvantaged students are two such examples.

As the IfS have highlighted, a student’s pre-university characteristics, such as socio-economic status, can have an impact on future earnings. However, as Reform’s research shows, it can be difficult for some disadvantaged students to access top universities in the first place. 

Ensuring that all students, regardless of background, can access the best universities is one possible step that could help to improve the future success of undergraduates.

With the IfS’s focus on progress after university, and Reform’s focus on access to university, both reports reflect key elements of the Office for Students’ (OfS) regulatory objectives.

The OfS aims to help all students, regardless of background, to access, succeed and progress in higher education. In other words, the regulator wants to ensure that higher education providers are helping students access university, succeed when they are there, and progress into good careers when they leave.

Different Universities Different Problems

As Reform’s report, "Gaining Access: Increasing the participation of disadvantaged students at elite universities" shows, however, different universities have different problems. Top universities, which have the highest entry-tariffs, struggle to improve access for disadvantaged students – in part because, on average, disadvantaged students are less likely to achieve the required grades in comparison to their more advantaged peers.

In contrast, lower and medium-tariff institutions admit a much higher proportion of disadvantaged students, and instead need to focus more attention on success and progression. According to OfS data, these differences are reflected in the funding priorities of each university.

Reform’s study demonstrates the slow progress made by top universities in their efforts to improve access. For example, according to UCAS data, the most advantaged students are nearly 10 times more likely to attend a high-tariff institution.

The higher education sector as a whole does not offer much comfort either – 12 per cent of UK full-time students came from a low-participation neighbourhood in 2016-17, the same proportion as 2015-16.

Three Steps to Better Measures

To improve these figures, a range of measures could be introduced: 


1. Access Spending Breakdown

First, a better breakdown of access spending, such as outreach activities and funding for contextualised admissions, would help to better inform universities about what policies work, and which policies don’t. 

Currently, universities publish their overall spending on access, success and progression, but offer little information detailing how this is spent. As spending on access increased by 6 percentage points between 2015-16 and 2016-17, but with little improvement in access for disadvantaged students, this should be a priority.

2. Synthetic Data to Measure Disadvantage

Second, a more accurate measure of disadvantage is needed to examine the progress made by universities. The POLAR3 metric, an area-based assessment of higher education progression, is not always a fair measure of disadvantage. Indeed, POLAR3, which classifies students into five categories, can group together students from very different backgrounds living in the same area.

POLAR3 remains, however, the only publicly available dataset used across the higher education sector. In part, this is because it uses less-sensitive data that cannot identify an individual person. Using synthetic data, which would provide an artificial version of a sample of data, could offer a more robust measure of each university’s progress. The Department for Education could create an indicator based on sensitive attributes in the National Pupil Database, such as income deprivation and Free School Meal status, whilst preserving the privacy of the individuals in the original data sample.

3. Make Better Room

Third, a national campaign is needed to encourage students to apply to top universities. As Reform’s research highlights, even if disadvantaged students achieve the required grades to enter a top university, they are less likely to apply in comparison to their more advantaged peers.

By adopting a campaign similar to Better Make Room in the USA, which attempts to get disadvantaged students to apply to universities through a variety of mediums such as text alerts and online tools to assess financial costs, it can help to increase the rate of applications.

Although top universities have committed to improving access, Reform’s report demonstrates there is still a long way to go.

Going forward, a better breakdown of spending, a more robust measure of disadvantage and a campaign to encourage students to apply could help to tackle one of the barriers facing disadvantaged students in their journey through higher education.

Dr Luke Heselwood, Report Author and Reform Researcher

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