There are three major statistical dimensions of equality in 18-year-old entry to higher education: where you live, men/women, and ethnic group.
Some of these dimensions get more attention than others, but in terms of people they each reflect broadly similar equality deficits. There are in the territory of 40,000-60,000 of each of the under-represented group(s) ‘missing’ from HE, compared to if they had the same entry rate as other group(s). If you’re interested in equality, and are data-led, you’ll give roughly equal attention to each of these. If you’re really interested, you’ll use multidimensional measures like the UCAS multiple equality measure (MEM), which account for the complex ways these dimensions can interact.
But the MEM data sets have not been published yet, so we’ve used the (excellent) UCAS ‘day 28’ data sets to look at each dimension individually. We’ve taken 18-year-olds, and used POLAR in England for “where you live”, and UK-wide measures for sex and ethnic group. We’ve considered entry to UCAS-recorded HE as whole, the data on entry to different types of university is not available yet.
Where you live
POLAR groups people according to the entry rate of their immediate neighbourhood. It is mostly driven by a rich/poor wealth dimension and works because the UK has a highly stratified residential structure. We’ve used POLAR3 here for technical reasons (its definition window interferes less with the period we are most interested in) but the results are much the same with the updated POLAR4.
Increases in the entry rate of the lowest entry rate group (Q1) since 2012 has been very strong – but this has changed in 2018. Typically, young people in these areas have been around 4% to 8% (proportionally) more likely to go to university every year. This year that growth in university entry chances has collapsed to almost zero. Only the fee-perturbed year of 2012 was worse.
The importance of where you live to your relative chances of entering university has been declining rapidly since 2012, mostly driven by this strong growth from lower entry rate areas. With that growth gone, the trend of rapidly decreasing inequality ratios has gone too. The Q5:Q1 ratio has typically reduced by 5 to 15 ‘ratio points’ each year. In 2018 it has barely moved, reducing just a single point – only the supply-squeezed 2011 cycle has a comparably small reduction. More comprehensive measures (comparing upper and lower halves of the population) give a similar pattern.
Back in the summer of 2015, after two strong years of Q1 entry rate growth, the Government set (and still observes) a Q1 entry rate target of 27% by 2020. Reaching it no doubt seemed like a fairly safe bet at the time. Not anymore. At 2018’s rate of growth (0.1 percentage points) that 2020 target won’t be hit until 2085, a substantial 65 years late.
As a triple (low growth, low equality reduction, high target deviation), this is arguably the worst set of POLAR data on record. There would be another 57,000 18-year-olds from England (65,000 at the UK level) starting at university this Autumn if young people in lower entry rate neighbourhoods (quintiles 1, 2, and 3) went to university at the same rate as their peers living elsewhere.
Inequality between men and women
In 2018 the UK entry rate for 18-year-old men at day 28 was 27.8%, up just 0.1 percentage points. For women 38.1%, also up by not much (+0.4 percentage points), but still four times more than for men. It seems that the slowing overall entry rate has hit men harder, pushing the university gap between men and women to a new record. Young women are now a startling 37% more likely to enter HE than men. The absolute percentage point gap between men and women has gone past 10 percentage points for the first time at 10.3 percentage points.
These differences equate to 38,000 men not starting at university this autumn compared to what we would see if men had equal entry rates with women. Measured this way, the men/women equality deficit is about 60% of the size of the rich/poor one, but seems to receive a somewhat lower share than that of attention. Of course, ‘men’ are a large population group, and sub-groups within them have some high entry rates. But this is the case with any grouping, and it doesn’t seem to inhibit targets or interventions elsewhere. The UCAS MEM approach is designed to allow for just this high/low subgroup concern. These data show that men make up 74% of the most under-represented fifth of population micro-groups.
With this weight of results, if we are to be guided in access equality by what the data actually says, surely this means having entry differences between men and women in a top three priority list. Yet there remains no explicit HE target to galvanise responses. OfS’ recent access and progression proposals seem set to continue this convention, with men inexplicably omitted from their target list of ‘under-represented’ groups. This apparent inaction in the face of highly compelling data on the scale and direction of this equality deficit is perplexing, and perhaps a factor in why it continues to get worse.
Differences by ethnic groups
There is a range of 18-year-old entry rates and trends across ethnic groups but for some time, the entry rate of the white group (30.8%) has been the lowest of the major ethnic groups that UCAS calculate rates for, and the only one to be under-represented against the national average (32.8%), though the mixed group is close (33.1%).
The 2018 data shows equality between ethnic groups receding further. The entry rate for the white group has fallen (slightly) whilst entry rates for all other ethnic groups are all increasing, by (proportionally) 5% or more for the asian and black ethnic groups.
With entry rates going in opposite directions, the differences between the below-average ethnic group (white) and ethnic groups with above average entry rates (asian, black, mixed and other) is increasing. In 2018 there were around 50,000 fewer 18-year-olds from the white ethnic group starting university compared to if they had the same average entry rate (39.6%) as young people from ethnic groups with entry rates higher than average.
Entry rates by ethnic group are one of the most dynamic areas of equality (and difficult to measure, as National Pupil Dataset based work gives slightly different results). As recently as 2009 the entry rate for 18-year-old in the black and white ethnic groups were almost equal at 26%. Today the black ethnic group has the highest entry rate (42.1%) and the white group the lowest (30.8%). It is possible that policy in this area is being outpaced by these fast-changing figures.
The Government’s old access and participation by ethnic group goal (again, still in operation according to DfE) is to have a 20% increase in numbers of higher education students from the black, asian, mixed and other groups between 2014 and 2020. Whilst increasing numbers of students is clearly a laudable target, this target doesn’t really have much to do with an entry rate perspective on equality. This is because it is expressed in terms of numbers (rather than more suitable rates) and because it only relates to a subset of ethnic groups (those that have entry rates above average). Meanwhile, like sex, ethnic group is a major dimension where equality is worsening year by year: things were more equal in the past than they are now.
Should have done better – time is ticking
The scene was set for a great year for equality. Falling populations in key age groups, no number controls, and (by DfE’s reckoning) £1 billion per year being spent on ‘widening access and successful participation’. But it hasn’t happened. Across the three major dimensions in the UCAS statistics, we’ve seen arguably the weakest year on record.
What has changed in 2018? We don’t know yet. More – probably a lot more – data is needed. It would need to cover interactions of equality characteristics, together with their patterns of qualifications, grades and geography. Universities, often deeply committed to equality in my experience, will already be worrying about their own 2018 figures and targets. A richer national data set to calibrate against would help them. It is probably inevitable that Governments seem to demonstrate the most interest in talking about the national data on university equality when things are going well, and the least interest when they are not. But more consistent attention would be helpful to the sector. As would reassessing whether current policies and targets – which powerfully direct what universities do – still align with where the data says the major equality deficits lie.
The key message in these 2018 figures is the need for a greater sense of urgency. The current low demand / high supply environment is only going to last a few years. After that demand will likely rise rapidly, probably outpacing supply. Large numbers squeezing to get in acts as a strong headwind for equality. If more equal entry is not embedded in universities before the early 2020s then it is quite possible that little progress will be made for a generation.