A “new and experimental” release from the Office for Students (OfS) on student outcomes – which compiles raw and unadjusted rates of continuation, attainment and progression to highly skilled work or further study for different groups of students in England – has thrown doubt on any assumptions of progress on equality.
The OfS issued this release with an important caveat; it does not include data on black, minority ethnic or disabled students. Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said access to the most selective universities and the black attainment gap are “the biggest equality gaps” and “still our top priorities”.
These latest figures instead address “further characteristics” – such as students who come from families without higher education qualifications and those who were eligible for free school meals – and it is clear progress on student outcomes has not been even or consistent.
Earlier this year, the OfS updated its five key performance measures, which showed that the gaps between most represented and least represented students have been reducing gradually since 2010/11. Mr Millward said this latest release included “important new insights” which universities and colleges can use to improve their support for students.
The OfS has today pointed out that between 2014/15 and 2017/18, the dropout rates for students who had spent time in care fell. The gap between care leavers and non-care leavers has now narrowed on this key regulator-set metric, from 7.5 percentage points to 5.6 percentage points.
But that statistic is a rare glimmer of achievement when compared to the release’s other findings. Just about every other graph that measures change over time shows that progress has actually stalled or been reversed.
Students who have been in care are, on average, less likely to achieve a first or upper-second degree. The gap between care leavers and non-care leavers in this regard has increased from 10 percentage points in 2016/17 to 12 percentage points in 2018/19.
Students who had been eligible to receive free school meals while at primary school are more likely to drop out of higher education. Between 2014/15 and 2017/18, continuation rates fell slightly for England-domiciled students. As a result, the difference in dropout rates between those who were eligible for free school meals and those that were not has grown, from 5 percentage points to 5.4 percentage points.
These same students were statistically less likely to achieve a first or a 2:1 in 2018/19 than in 2016/17. The attainment gap has grown as more than 80% of students from better-off backgrounds continue to achieve a first or a 2:1, whereas fewer than 70% of students from socio-economically deprived backgrounds do.
Less than two thirds (63.2%) of students from the lowest socioeconomic status backgrounds achieved a 1st or 2:1 in their degree in 2018-19, compared with 84.7 per cent of students from wealthier backgrounds.
In his statement, Mr Millward explained that throughout the pandemic the regulator has made clear it expects providers to “meet their financial commitments to support the most disadvantaged students”.
“The current crisis has revealed different experiences and outcomes across our educational system, so it is more important than ever to maintain our focus on tackling inequality in higher education,” he continued. “As the country begins to move out of lockdown, we will now be working closely with universities and colleges to get their plans to tackle equality gaps back on track.”