The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s release of widening participation data shows us that progress in the sector has slowed overall, and there remains wide variation between providers. A lot of coverage focused on the number of students from state schools entering higher education, but this is not a great proxy for under-represented groups because of the variability in performance – and intake – between different schools.
In his statement on this newly released data, Damian Hinds spoke positively of the number of applicants from state schools entering university: 90% of under 21 year-olds entering higher education in 2016/17 studied at state schools. Peter Horrocks, vice chancellor of the Open University, highlighted the 14% fall in part-time student numbers. He commented that, as part-time students are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds, the drop in numbers is “undermining” efforts to open up higher education. MillionPlus called for a new approach to reverse the “damaging trends” among mature and part-time students.
We looked at low participation neighbourhoods – these are often the hardest prospective students to reach. Overall 11.4% of young entrants (under 21) were from low participation neighbourhoods, up from 10.0% in 2010-11.
Notes on the data
Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) according to the POLAR3 classification are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. It isn’t possible to compare the results directly to the year previous as this is the first dataset to use the most recent version of POLAR3. Statistics aren’t available for institutions in Scotland, so these are not shown. And we’ve filtered out null values. You can read HESA’s definitions here, and you can access the statistics here.
The data for full-time entrants looks at those under 21 years old, who are entering higher education for the first time. The five providers with the highest percentage of 2016 entrants from a low participation neighbourhood are as follows:
- University of Sunderland
- Teesside University
- University of Suffolk
- Glyndŵr University
- University of Bolton
The top five providers all had at least a quarter (24.8% and up) of entrants from the lowest participation neighbourhoods in 2016.
The bottom five providers – those with the lowest percentage of 2016 entrants from a low participation neighbourhood – are:
- Royal Agricultural University
- Guildhall School of Music and Drama
- University of Cambridge
- Royal College of Music
- University of Oxford
The above providers all took less than 4% of entrants from the lowest participation neighbourhoods.
High participation in the North
Almost two thirds of institutions in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber regions took more than 10% of their 2016 cohort of students from low participation areas. Teesside and the University of Sunderland in particular took roughly a third of their entrants in the last year from the areas of lowest participation. At 5%, the University of Durham had the lowest intake of students from low participation neighbourhoods across the northern regions.
Meanwhile, the figure ranged between 2.2% to 18.3% across the southern regions. The highest percentage reported across the South East, the South West and London was 18.3% at Plymouth College of Art.
Zooming in to the capital paints a bleaker picture still: all 33 of the London institutions included within the data took less than 10% of their 2016 cohort from neighbourhoods of low participation. The best performers were a mixture of large and specialist institutions, while some of London’s biggest institutions, including UCL and Imperial College London, reported the smallest percentages of entrants from the quintile of lowest participation.
However, POLAR data has its limitations when classifying neighbourhoods in London and the South East, where there is a mix of advantage and disadvantage within the same neighbourhoods. In the capital, relatively disadvantaged families are more likely to live in POLAR Q3, Q4 and Q5, quintile areas (where Q5 denotes the highest participation).
Little TEF correlation
Yet another dataset confirms that TEF year 2, the results of which were released in June of last year, has had little noticeable impact on the 2016-17 UK admissions cycle. As the results were released after application deadlines for the main cycle, any influence of the TEF would only impact applications through clearing. The percentage of WP entrants to institutions awarded Bronze ranged from 4.2% to 26.5%, while the corresponding range for institutions awarded Gold was 3% to 21.7%. Just under 6 in 10 Gold institutions took less than 10% of its 2016 cohort students from the lowest participation areas. There were fewer Bronze institutions included in the data, but just over half took fewer than 10%. The largest range was found among Silver awarded institutions, who took between 2.2% and 33.2% WP entrants in the last year.
University Alliance members performed particularly well: 14 of 18 alliance providers took more than 10% of their students from low participation neighbourhoods, and none reported lower than 5%.
All Russell Group institutions accepted fewer than 10% of their 2016 cohort from the quintile of lowest participation, with the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge reporting the lowest statistics at 3.5% and 3%, respectively. Figures were more varied across MillionPlus institutions and small, specialist institutions.
Our visualisations of the data on part-time students cover students of all ages, and find that participation of those from low participation neighbourhoods in part-time education entering HE for the first time was altogether lower in 2016 than the figures for full-time education. A standalone institution is the University of Liverpool, which took a staggering 41.6% of its part time students from the lowest participation quintile – exactly double the next highest figure of 20.3% (from the University of Leeds). King’s College London (KCL) reported that it placed a miniscule 0.2% of part-time new entrants from low participation areas – the lowest figure recorded across all providers included in the data. The statistics for part-time entrants consider only those who entered into higher education for the first time in 2016.
There is more correlation between TEF award and proportion of part-time WP entrants than we noted among full-time entrants: with the exception of the University of Liverpool, Bronze providers generally performed poorly (roughly 10% or less). There was a greater range in performance among Silver- and Gold-awarded providers.
While most Russell Group institutions recorded less than 7% of their part-time entrants as coming from low participation areas, there were three outliers in the Universities of Bristol, Leeds and Liverpool (mentioned above), which all reported roughly 20% or greater.
The Open University reported positive figures for part-time students, with the OU in England, Wales and Northern Ireland placing 16%, 17.9% and 10.6% of their students from low participation neighbourhoods, respectively. The Open University Scotland is not included in the data.
Welsh providers generally ranked in the middle of the UK-wide range. There was a low- to mid-range performance from providers in the Midlands, but some strong results from outliers in the southern regions – the Universities of Bristol (19.2%) and Kent (17.1%). London providers’ intake of part-time students from low participation areas was strictly on the lower end of the spectrum: St Mary’s University, Twickenham, recorded the highest figure for part-time WP entrants at 5.7%.
On the whole, the data shows us that the largest chunk of the sector – first-time undergraduate full-time entrants under 21 – is performing steadily, and growing at a slow rate. When we focus on its often-neglected subsections – including mature and part-time students – we can notice long term trends of decline that have a particular impact on the sector’s ability to widen participation.
[Data visualisations by David Kernohan]