From education to employment

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds less likely to complete their course

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Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those otherwise underrepresented in higher education are less likely to complete their course, data published by the Office for Students (OfS) shows. 

The new data has reinforced the importance of quality underpinning equality of opportunity, according to the OfS Director of Fair Access and Participation John Blake, who has written a commentary on the underlying issues to accompany the data and a new risk register. 

The data is included in the OfS’s access and participation dashboards for the first time, with the dashboards updated alongside a new Equality of Opportunity Risk Register. The risk register sets out a range of risks to equality of opportunity which universities and colleges should consider when drawing up their plans to improve equality of opportunity. The register covers students who are thinking about applying for higher education courses to those embarked on careers after graduation.  

It includes risks relating to the perception that higher education might not be right for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or concerns about academic and personal support for those at university.

Universities and colleges are also asked to consider students’ mental health, the continuing impact of the pandemic on education opportunities and pressures on living costs.  

Data on completion rates is presented at both a sector-wide and individual university or college level. It shows that, in the most recent year of data:

  • 81.6 per cent of students from the most deprived backgrounds completed their course, compared to 92.2 per cent from the most advantaged group 
  • 82.5 per cent of students eligible for free school meals completed their course, compared to 90.8 per cent of students who were not eligible
  • 80.7 per cent of black students completed their course, compared to 88.5 per cent of white students. 

Writing in an accompanying commentary to today’s publications, John Blake, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, said:  

‘This year, for the first time, we have added completion data to our access and participation data dashboards. What the data reveals should concern us all. Higher education in England has historically high completion rates, but this data shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups have been much more likely to drop out than their more advantaged peers. These gaps are significant and in some cases are growing. 

‘When we consulted on our new quality conditions we heard, time and again, that we should be cautious about implementing expectations for student outcomes because those universities and colleges with weaker outcomes often had high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

‘This may be a well-meaning argument, but it is wrong-headed. It is condescending to suggest that students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be prepared to accept poor quality courses where too many students drop out and do not find graduate level work. The implication is that they should be grateful for any form of higher education. That is a dangerous and patronising idea.  

‘People work hard to get into higher education. Where their course lets them down, it can have a profound impact on their confidence, their finances and their plans for the future. That is why the OfS’s work on fair access and participation needs to go in lock-step with our work on quality. That is the only way to ensure true equality of opportunity.’ 

On the risk register, John Blake said:  

‘The register is designed to help all universities and colleges as they draw up their access and participation plans. It sets out the many and varied risks to students’ capacity to be authors of their own lives, and highlights the sort of challenges providers might see if a risk has not been sufficiently mitigated.  

‘Some of these will be familiar – risks relating to the perception of higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or concerns about academic and personal support. But we cannot, for example, consider the risks to access without recognising the impact of the pandemic on education, or recognising that providers need to consider how students’ mental health might affect their likelihood of success in their studies.’ 

The OfS has also published a response to a consultation on the future of access and participation regulation. Writing in his commentary, John Blake said:  

‘We have made a number of changes to our proposals directly as a result of feedback we have received. As we signalled recently, one of those changes relate to timescales. We recognise that providers want more time to get to grips with the risk register, and to understand how changes in our guidance should apply in the context of their particular mission, student population and capacity for action.  

‘That is why most providers will not need to submit a new access and participation plan until the spring or summer of 2024. A first wave of universities and colleges will be encouraged to submit plans this summer. These pioneers will be from all corners of the sector, and will have the opportunity to set the bar for others to exceed. They will receive tailored support on evaluation as they draw up their plans.’ 

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