Mary Curnock Cook is formerly Chief Executive of UCAS.
In recent years, the story of access to higher education has been told and retold many times through the exploration of changes in entry rates by POLAR, the forensic examination of the admission of students from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, and through the growing debate about young men falling behind women. Interventions to widen participation have been targeted at and measured through these familiar lenses.
Whist this approach has served the sector and policy community well, the reality is much more complex. It is the intersection of these measures that really matters, where individual young people hold multiple characteristics of disadvantage. We’ve quickly got used to the focus on white, working-class boys as a particularly challenged group for education outcomes, but our approach of labelling groups doesn’t reflect what inequality is really like, and inevitably means that some groups will be overlooked.
Today sees the publication of UCAS’ 2016 End of Cycle Report and the introduction of a developed multiple equality measure (MEM), which does two things simultaneously. It combines the effects of different dimensions of equality (area, income background, school sector, sex, and ethnic group) into a single measure, and from this, it objectively identifies those people with low entry rates. It gives the most complete picture we have ever been able to produce of inequalities in entry to higher education. Alongside this, we have also released the underpinning data, and a data explorer tool to allow others to easily understand and test how the multiple equality measure works.
It’s perhaps no surprise that our measure exposes the fact that nearly three-quarters of the group least likely to enter university are men, most are from lower income families, and nine out of ten are in the White ethnic group. But we’ve not simply replaced one group with another. The group least likely to enter also includes women, black and Asian young people, and even some of those living in the richest neighbourhoods where a combination of equality characteristics is associated with a disadvantage in entry to higher education.
That said, this new measure also highlights the progress that has been made in widening participation over the last decade. Our analysis shows that those young people with combinations of background characteristics associated with the lowest entry rates to highest education are over 70% more likely to enter university today than they were in 2006. The headlines speak for themselves:
But the gap in participation between the young English population from backgrounds with the lowest entry rates to higher education and those with the highest entry rates remains stark. In 2016, 13.6% of the lowest participation group entered university. In contrast, 52.1% of the highest participation group went to university – nearly four times higher.
Not only does this gap remain unacceptably large, but our analysis suggests that improvements in reducing the relative inequality between these groups have stalled over the last two admissions cycles. In a country where we know that many of the well-rewarded jobs of the future will require higher level skills, and where concerns about growing inequality and social justice are to the fore, this requires attention.
We can demonstrate conclusively that school-level attainment is the factor which has the greatest impact on whether or not someone is able to go on to access higher education. We can track the year-on-year increases in entry rates to higher education and show that these are almost entirely in step with year-on-year changes in the GCSE grades achieved. Stronger achievement at GCSE feeds through to stronger attainment at age 18, which in turn supports access to university.
Success at GCSE is rooted in the years which precede it. My experience of meeting young people and teachers in schools around the country – through UCAS, being a governor of an academy in a deprived area, and a trustee of the Access Project – tells me that interventions need to start before pupils fail to achieve good GCSEs. Interventions that begin after GCSEs will help to increase the size of the top-slice that go to university, but earlier interventions are needed if we are to address the groups that are seriously under-represented in higher education.
I do not believe that the challenge of raising attainment is the responsibility of universities alone. As articulated through the recommendations of Universities UK’s recent Social Mobility Advisory Group report, the nature of the challenge requires all of us with a stake in widening participation to work together in a coordinated way, with more focus on interventions at primary and early secondary stages. A number of innovative social enterprises are already adding value to the good work being done by schools and colleges. Universities can, and do, support schools directly, but there is also scope for working in collaboration with third sector organisations which specialise in engaging and motivating young people to get on track to do well at the critical GCSE stage.
We’ve developed sophisticated tracking tools that can help measure the impact of different interventions, including using synthetic control groups extracted from UCAS data to measure relative and comparative outcomes. Together with our multiple equality measure, we now have the tools to help direct investment in initiatives that could accelerate progress, and I invite colleagues across the higher education sector to build on these developments.