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UCAS report claims University admissions more unequal than previously thought

ByGavin Dewar

Jan 25, 2016


Inequality in UK higher education admissions is more prevalent than previously thought, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) has claimed in its end-of-cycle report.

The report calls the widely-used method of collecting admissions data, Participation of Local Areas (POLAR), outdated. It suggested that when a more nuanced version of POLAR is used, UK school leavers from affluent areas are found to be 3.2 times more likely to go on to higher education than the less well-off. This is a step up from the 2.4 times previously suggested.

On top of this, it is thought that POLAR has previously fallen short of delivering ideal results by not paying enough attention to matters of gender and ethnicity.

Ucas’s new method of data gathering seeks to make up for POLAR’s shortcomings, such as by looking at areas of deprivation within otherwise affluent communities. When these changes are made, it is found that 14 per cent of the least advantaged 18-year-old English state school leavers went on to higher education, not the 18 per cent presented by POLAR. Meanwhile, 45.3 per cent of the most advantaged group went on to university, a rise from POLAR’s 43 per cent.

While Ucas’s method concentrates on inequalities in England, the findings are also thought to be significant for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Ian Murray, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and Edinburgh South Labour MP, spoke to The Student, saying, “We know that there is a pronounced gap in the university entry rates of the most advantaged and disadvantaged young people and this new analysis reiterates that. It also serves to demonstrate why widening participation and tackling educational inequality should be a priority of both the UK and Scottish Governments, and all those who want to create a more just and egalitarian society.”

Murray, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, continued, “This is every bit as much of an issue in Scotland as it is elsewhere: Scotland has the lowest percentage of university entrants from the poorest backgrounds and the lowest proportion of entrants from state schools in the UK.

“The debate around participation in Scotland tends to be dominated by tuition fees, but no fees does not equal no debt, or higher participation. The four year degree in Scottish universities means that Scottish students from lower-income backgrounds leave university with an average debt of £26,600, and the prospect of accruing such a debt is likely to deter many young people from going to university in the first place.

“I want every single young person to have the best possible start in life, as I did. I did not come from a moneyed background but I received the help and support I needed to attend Edinburgh University and I want other young people to have that opportunity too.”

Murray insisted, “We must remember that the gap in educational attainment starts very young, and address that, and be more active in targeting those groups among whom university participation is especially low.”

Marco Biagi, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, pointed out to The Student that in Scotland, the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), another area-based data-gathering method, tends to be used more than POLAR.

“It’s always important to be sighted on the imperfections of any data in public policy, especially where Scotland-England comparisons are being made,” He cautioned.

Biagi continued, “It may be a disappointment but it’s not a surprise that people from wealthier backgrounds are so much more likely to go to university. What matters is what’s being done about it. All the different systems of measuring backgrounds of higher education students do agree on one thing – that progress is being made in Scotland and the participation gap is narrowing. When all the dials point in the same direction we can take some comfort that they are right.

“The First Minister has also set up a Commission on Widening Access to advise on what else needs to be done. In their interim report last year they did highlight the need to develop more robust data measures. The Scottish Government will be receiving their final report later this year and will be stepping up our efforts in this area even further.

“Everyone with the ability and desire deserves the opportunity of higher education.”

Alison Johnstone, Scottish Greens MSP for the Lothian region, also spoke to The Student, saying, “This new analysis makes it clear that despite our universities and decision-makers talking about equal opportunity, we are far off from giving every talented young person the chances they deserve.  Support for students from less affluent backgrounds has to go beyond free tuition.”

Johnstone then spoke of the University of Edinburgh specifically, calling it a “a world-class institution.”

However, she continued, “to stay that way, it must attract all the talent out there and reach out to students from poorer communities. But the onus is on the Scottish Government too – college courses provide a vital access route to higher education for young people from poor backgrounds, but Scotland’s colleges have been struggling to keep things running with the mergers and cuts of years past. It’s time to give them the support and funds they need and deserve.”

Image credit: Flickr: dun_deagh 

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