A postcode lottery for university access

Progress in widening access varies widely across England’s local areas, and the major political parties aren’t paying attention. Graeme Atherton asks what the levelling up agenda means, if not this

Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), and Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London

It feels like an age ago that Theresa May spoke about white working class boys lacking opportunities to go to university in her first statement as Prime Minister on the steps of Number 10.

But over that last eight years – alongside a pandemic and wars during that time – there has been a gradual sliding of access to higher education off the mainstream political agenda.

Fast forward to now and neither major party sees access as a priority. For so long it has been central to Labour’s approach to addressing education inequalities yet there is no mention of higher education participation in its opportunity mission. While the Office for Students continues to press universities via Access and Participation Plans (APPs) to display even greater commitments to widening access, the wider political backing is not there at present.

However, while inequalities in access to higher education may have shifted out of the spotlight, the problem has not gone away.

Who is missing out

Our new report, Universities not for everyone: levelling up and who is missing out on higher education in England, takes a detailed look at the changes in participation in higher education from 2011-12 to 2022-23 for state schooled students by age 19 from free school meal (FSM) backgrounds and non-free school meal backgrounds.

It shows that while there has been some progress in most areas, it is slow. In most areas there has been less than a 30 per cent improvement in participation in 10 years for those from FSM backgrounds and in two areas (Leicester and Blackpool) participation has decreased. By 2021-22 the national higher education participation rate for young FSM learners was 29.2 per cent – but in 70 per cent of local authority areas participation was lower than this and in nearly a third of areas the participation rate was less than 20 per cent.

The average participation rate is being pulled up by the strong performance of London where the FSM participation rate in 80 per cent of its local authority areas is over 40 per cent. The gap between the area with the highest participation rate (Westminster, at 66 per cent) and the lowest (Swindon at 13.8 per cent) is over 50 per cent. As a region the participation rate for FSM learners in 2021-22 in London outstrips every area with the gap between London and the South East at 30 per cent.

The gap in participation between FSM and non-FSM areas is also getting larger – it has increased in 63 per cent of local authority areas from 2021-2022.

A postcode lottery

The picture is not all gloom. Some areas have experienced impressive improvements – Southampton for example has nearly trebled its participation rate in higher education for FSM learners over the 10-year period. We need to know more about why some areas are improving here.

But there is a real postcode lottery where opportunities to progress to higher education for learners from FSM backgrounds are concerned. And improvements across local areas may be slowing. Before 2011-12, when the new approach to widening access favoured by the coalition government focusing on APPs and not collaborative funded programmes began, progress was on average quicker. It actually stalled altogether in the late 2010s before the boost to higher education participation provided by the pandemic kicked in.

The efforts of those in the widening access community have been more successful where improving participation by those from low participation areas are concerned – which is unsurprising as until very recently that was the metric they were told to focus on by the OfS and its predecessors.

But the reality is that it has been increasingly hard to make a difference in the APP era as political support for access has waned.

We need to re-connect inequalities in higher education with what opportunity, social mobility, levelling up or whatever frame the next government uses to understand inequality in England if any progress is to be made.

The evidence in our report is striking and shows that, despite the gains made over the last 25 years of widening access work, there is so much still to do. This re-connecting matters – not just for the young people who continue to be excluded from opportunities to progress in their lives by their background – but for universities themselves.

The gradual ebbing away of political support for widening access has coincided with declining support for higher education itself. As higher education has been seen less as a mechanism for social mobility its relevance and purpose has become increasingly questioned.

Many in the sector may still see widening access as an add on to what they are really there to do – nice to have but not essential. They need to have a rethink and do it quickly because the future of their sector may depend far more on their ability to prove that they can affect inequality than they realise.

3 responses to “A postcode lottery for university access

  1. Interesting report, whilst FSM is one measure there are other factors, often made worse by poorly constructed DEI policies that allow “white working class boys” to be discriminated against, so other boxes can be ticked. And we shouldn’t lose sight of most Universities preferring government sponsored ‘overseas’ students, not just for the three times factor in income compared to average income (not FSM families) UK students, but also for the long term potential income from endowments from UK alumnus’s where those from an FSM background are very unlikely to ever contribute, something the business people on most University Councils are more than happy to discriminate for.

    1. I’m curious as to why the article, in the ‘not all gloom’ section, cites Southampton ‘nearly trebling’ its FSM participation rate. This refers to Table 6 (pg 18) of the report. The article goes on to say we need to know why some areas are improving. Fine, but why specifically name Southampton? Southampton lies in second place. Hull (which happens to be my place of birth, hence why this irked me) is top of the table and has actually more than trebled its FSM participation rate (as opposed to almost trebling). So why the emphasis on SOUTHampton?

  2. How much of this inequality driven by the very different ethnic mix in London compared to elsewhere though? As I understand it, one important driver is the far higher progression rate to higher education conditional on Level 3 attainment among those from Black backgrounds driven by differing parental attitudes to higher education due to e.g. a belief that a degree provides some element protection against racial discrimination in the labour market.

    It would be interesting to look at comparisons of White British FSM entry rates between different areas of the country based on where people live rather than where they attend school/college to control for selective schools/sixth forms.

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