Universities warned to ‘up their game’ in supporting disadvantaged students

Universities have been warned they must “up their game” and help disadvantaged students as new data reveals the wide gulf in pupils’ chances studying for a degree.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has warned institutions they must do more to recruit poorer students and cut drop out rates, arguing that “wasted potential” must not go unchecked.

University leaders said that institutions are “redoubling efforts” to improve access and retention to degree courses.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has warned institutions they must do more to recruit poorer students and cut drop out rates (Joe Giddens/PA)

In one in 10 local areas in England, fewer than a quarter of state school teenagers go on to study for a degree, according to a PA news agency analysis of new official data.

The experimental figures, published by the Office for Students (OfS), show that nationally, state school pupils from the most advantaged areas of England are almost two-and-a-half (2.4 times) more likely to go on to higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged parts of the country.

The data divides England into 6,764 local areas and calculates the higher education participation rate of mainstream state school pupils living in each place.

PA’s analysis shows that in 655 of these areas (9.7%) fewer than 25% of pupils go on to university.

In just 0.3% of local areas (20 places) more than three quarters (75%) of pupils go on to study for a degree.

Mr Williamson said universities need to make more progress on improving access and participation.

“It is not good enough that white working class boys are far less likely to go to university and black students are far less likely to complete their courses than others,” he said.

“We cannot let this wasted potential go unchecked any longer.

“I am pleased to see the work that some universities are doing. It was a privilege to address vice-chancellors on this important issue at the recent UUK conference, but disparity remains a problem.

“I want all universities, including the most selective, to do everything they can to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education, but they also need to keep them there and limit the numbers dropping out of courses. My message is clear – up your game and get on with it.”

Separate figures published by admissions service Ucas, show that in 2017, 43.3% of young people in England had gone on to study for a degree by age 19.

Government statistics published earlier this year show that in 2016/17, disadvantaged students were more likely to drop out of university in their first year than their more advantaged peers (8.8% compared to 6% of full-time degree students aged under 21).

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said: “Universities share the Government’s desire to help disadvantaged students access a world-class education and ensure that all students are supported to succeed during their studies.

“Progress is being made, with 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England more likely to go to university than ever before.

“However, we know there is more work to do and universities are redoubling efforts to improve access and support retention. Universities have recently set themselves even more ambitious targets to improve equality of opportunity in their new access and participation plans in England. Universities UK has also published recommendations on how universities can address gaps in attainment for BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) students as well as drop-out rates.

“Universities are also calling on the Government to prioritise policies to quicken the progress by reintroducing maintenance grants for students most in need, helping reduce drop-out rates and financial barriers to university.”

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