Proportion of disadvantaged university students stalls

The proportion of disadvantaged young people going to university has failed to increase, despite a continuing push to boost numbers.

New figures show that, of young people starting university in 2018/19, just over one in 10 were from areas of the UK where few youngsters go into higher education – the same proportion as the year before.

The data, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), shows wide variation between institutions – at some universities more than a quarter of students were from these areas, while at others the proportion was less than 5%.

Universities are under increasing pressure to improve access to higher education for different groups of students – including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The latest statistics show that, in 2018/19, of all UK university entrants, aged under 21, starting their first, full-time undergraduate degree, 11.4% were from “low participation neighbourhoods” – the places with the fewest youngsters going into higher education.

This is the same proportion as in 2017/18, and up 0.2 percentage points from 11.2% in 2016/17.

A breakdown by country shows that in England in 2018/19 the figure was 11.4%, up from 11.3% the year before, in Wales it remained static at 13.1%, and in Northern Ireland it fell 0.1 percentage points to 9.8%.

Data for Scotland was not available.

An analysis by university and college shows that at 161 institutions for which there are figures, at almost one in five (19%) – 31 in total – less than 5% of entrants in 2018/19 were from low participation neighbourhoods.

Of these 31, seven were Russell Group universities. They are Warwick (4.9%), Cambridge (4.2%), Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (4%), University College London (3.7%), Oxford (3.7%), King’s College London (3.7%) and Queen Mary, University of London (3.6%).

There were three institutions on 0% – all smaller, specialist colleges.

Excluding these, the Royal College of Music had the lowest proportion at 1.7%, and of the large, mainstream universities, City, University of London was listed as having the smallest percentage at 2.4%.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, England’s higher education watchdog, said: “Despite significant efforts and investment over many years, this data shows only a modest improvement in the rates of disadvantaged students entering higher education in 2018-19.

“On the other hand, the latest Ucas data, for students who began their courses last autumn, suggests a welcome upturn in progress.

“The reality is that each year of slow progress is one where thousands of people with the ability to excel in higher education are missing out. That is why it is so important that all universities and colleges registered with the Office for Students have set out the work they will do over the next five years to cut deep-seated gaps in higher education access and outcomes between the most and least advantaged students.”

Last month, the regulator warned that access to university has been a “postcode lottery” in the past, with young people from some English regions, such as the South West, much less likely to go into higher education.

It said the UK’s most selective institutions have agreed tough targets with for the next five years as part of attempts to improve access, and that those who fail to do so could face sanctions, including financial penalties.

Dr Maria Neophytou, director of social mobility charity Impetus, said “Today’s figures show how little progress is being made to close the gap in university access between young people from poorer backgrounds and their peers.

“Over the last five years the gap has barely changed, yet universities are telling the Office for Students that over the next five years, they will halve this gap. A worthy ambition, but there simply aren’t enough young people from disadvantaged backgrounds getting the grades they need.

“The danger is universities will end up fighting over the same pool of well-qualified young people, while very little is invested in widening that pool.”