New figures suggest social mobility under threat in higher education

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the proportion of state-educated pupils at UK universities has fallen for the first time in eight years

The proportion of state-educated pupils at UK universities has fallen below 90%, the first such drop for eight years. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), covering the 2017-18 academic year, reveal that the percentage of young entrants from grammar and comprehensive schools fell from 90% to 89.8%, ending an upward trend that began in 2010.

The University of Oxford remains the university welcoming the lowest proportion of state school pupils. It is also the only one to record a sub-60% intake; just 58% took up studies there in 2017-18.

Across the sector, the percentage of university-bound students from disadvantaged backgrounds – or ‘low participation neighbourhoods’ – was 11.6%. The figure is a marginal improvement on the 10.9% recorded in 2012 – when universities were first given leave to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year.

Relying on formal communication methods can act as a barrier to higher education for pupils from disadvantaged areas. Nik Higgins, social impact advisor

HESA’s figures are not the first to suggest that social mobility in higher education is under threat.

In December, a report by education and social mobility charity, the Sutton Trust, found that in the last three years, eight schools and colleges had more students accepted to Oxbridge than three quarters of all other schools. Most of the eight were fee-paying independent schools.

The Sutton Trust’s figures, collated from Ucas admissions data, also pinpointed extensive geographical discrepancies in acceptance rates.

According to Nik Higgins, an advisor to educational and social impact charities, the fall in intake from state school backgrounds is symptomatic of universities’ failure to “speak the language of students” when communicating with young people.

“Any decline in state-school students going to university is a worrying trend that needs to be addressed,” said Higgins.

“Traditionally, universities have used open days, prospectuses and school visits to attract students, but these methods are no longer having the effect on recruitment they once did. Communication has moved on, and so must universities.”

“Relying on formal communication methods can act as a barrier to higher education for pupils from disadvantaged areas in particular,” he added.

“It’s not about changing the message, it’s about delivering that message in a more student friendly way, so no-one is excluded by background.

“Young people use technology to communicate. It’s second nature to them, so giving them the opportunity to reach out to their future university in this way increases trust, makes higher education seem more accessible, and engages them more than any prospectus or open day can or will.”

Higgins advice reflects that published in October 2016 by Universities UK’s Social Mobility Advisory Group. A collaboration between the higher education sector, students and employers, the group’s recommendations to universities for improving social mobility included “giving a greater priority to communications to students of all ages”.


Click here to read the Social Mobility Advisory Group’s full report