Ucas 2020 End of Cycle Report: equality gap shrinking – but too slowly

Record numbers of UK 18-year-olds applied and were accepted into HE during 2020 cycle – but widening access progress risks stalling without “strong actions”

The equality gap in university admissions could be eliminated in a decade, Ucas reveals in its 2020 End of Cycle Report, published today (16 December) – but without “strong actions” equality will take 332 years.

Insight from Ucas’ 2020 End of Cycle Report: What happened to the COVID cohort? says that, if the UK’s 38 most selective universities each admitted an additional 70 students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in England every year, the collective equality gap in their admissions would be closed by 2030.

The higher education admissions service found that English school pupils from the most advantaged backgrounds are now 12 times more likely to study at a higher tariff university, compared to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – the lowest gap on record and largest single year fall in this value since 2014.

However, it reported that annual progress in widening access and participation to full-time undergraduate courses was slowing down – and warned that widening access and participation progress for traditional degree programmes could “stall, and possibly reverse” unless drastic action was taken by providers.

The UK’s 18-year-old population is set to rise, with Ucas forecasting an additional 90,000 higher education applicants by 2025 and thus potentially increased competition for the most selective courses.

Ucas 2020 End of Cycle Report: Key insights

  • The UK 18-year-old entry rate rose to a record 37.0%, from 34.1% in 2019.
  • Record UK application (41.5% for 18 year olds) and acceptance rates (89.1% for 18 year olds), resulting in growth in participation across all POLAR4 groups. Overall, a total of 289,510 UK 18 year olds (up 3.0% on 2019) applied through UCAS in the 2020 cycle, and 257,895 (up 6.8%) were accepted.
  • The UCAS Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) equality gap narrowed, with the most advantaged English school pupils (group five) 4.23 times more likely to enter HE than the most disadvantaged (group one), compared to 4.40 times in 2019. The gap from 2010 has now narrowed by 26.4%.
  • Record numbers of 18 year old acceptances from the lowest participation areas: 29,020 UK students from POLAR4 Q1, 1,645, Scottish students from SIMD Q1, and over 14,000 acceptances of 18 year old English pupils receiving free school meals (FSM).
  • Significant growth in mature student acceptances, reflecting a demand for up- and re-skilling as the economy entered recession – the work of doctors, medical professionals, and NHS staff inspired applications to health and social care programmes, including nursing. Mature students (aged 21 or over) significantly increased to 114,440, representing the largest single year growth since 2009.
  • Higher tariff providers and medicine courses accepted more disadvantaged students, with the MEM entry rate ratio for English 18 year old applicants to medicine narrowing. Nonetheless, the equality gap remains stark – advantaged students remain nearly 25 times more likely than their disadvantaged peers to be placed on medicine courses.
  • A record number of students declaring disabilities, mental health conditions, or specific learning difficulties were accepted into HE. Nearly 4% of UK applicants now flag a mental health condition in their application, with a 10.4% increase in the number of accepted applicants declaring in 2020.
  • Regional gaps in entry persist, with 49.1% of London-based 18 year olds entering HE, compared to 32.4% of those from the South West

The Ucas Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) is a metric that combines the effects of many measures used in the analysis of equality in higher education, such as sex, ethnic group, POLAR quintile, school type and free school meals (FSM) status.

The annual admission of 70 more of the most disadvantaged English 18 year old pupils to each higher tariff provider could all but eliminate the equality gap in just a decade. At the current rate of progress, the gap would not be eliminated until 2352.

Lessons learned

Ucas has highlighted three areas for improvement in 2021:

  • Supporting the class of 2021 who, “without sustained effort… may become the forgotten COVID cohort – less visible than last year’s entrants, but arguably starting from an equally bad or worse position”.
  • Tackle the impending squeeze on HE and apprenticeship places due to a rising 18-year-old population and a slowing of the closure of the equality gap. “Without action, there is real potential for this capacity squeeze to have a greater impact on disadvantaged students”, says the report.
  • Levelling up opportunity to access education: the annual admission of 70 more of the most disadvantaged English 18 year old pupils to each higher tariff provider could all but eliminate the equality gap in just a decade. At the current rate of progress, the gap would not be eliminated until 2352.

We are committed to exploring the benefits of a UK shared apprenticeships admissions service to enable students to consider and connect to all post-secondary education options in a single location – Clare Marchant, Ucas

“The insight gleaned from analysing UCAS admissions data using our comprehensive Multiple Equality Measure shows the enduring determination of young people from all backgrounds to progress to higher education despite all the interruptions to daily life throughout the pandemic,” said Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive.

“The significant efforts of universities, colleges and schools to support all students in these trying times are also clear as gaps in equality shrink again this year.

“Unsurprisingly, mental health declarations continue to rise. Building confidence in students to trust that UCAS and universities and colleges will use this information responsibly is a key recommendation coming out of this report.

“Ensuring disadvantaged students, including those who have experienced significant educational disruption, are supported in accessing HE in 2021 will be critical.

“Looking further ahead, advances in widening access and participation cannot be taken for granted, and there is much work still to be done. Ensuring a sustainable increase in higher education and apprenticeship places to ensure availability for the most disadvantaged students will help manage impending pressures on equality.

Clare Marchant said Ucas was also looking to develop an apprenticeship hub to sit alongside the existing Ucas admission website:

“Building on the success of the UCAS Hub, our personalised digital space for young people embarking on their next steps, we are committed to exploring the benefits of a UK shared apprenticeships admissions service to enable students to consider and connect to all post-secondary education options in a single location.”

Sector response to Ucas 2020 End of Cycle Report

Responding to the Ucas 2020 End of Cycle Report, Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students (OfS), said:

‘Through the access and participation plans they have agreed with the Office for Students, universities have committed to ambitious targets to improve access over the next five years. This UCAS data shows universities taking the first steps towards meeting these commitments, through which an additional 6,500 students from the most underrepresented groups will enter the highest tariff universities by 2024-25.

‘It is crucial that universities follow through on these commitments to reduce barriers for students from the most disadvantaged parts of the country, and we will closely monitor their progress.

‘Access is, though, only one part of the picture. It’s promising that a record number of applicants have been accepted from the most underrepresented groups, but these students also need good support once they get into university.

‘That will be crucial for ensuring that they are able to continue with their studies, particularly through the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, and have an equal opportunity to achieve the top grades. It will also equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need if they are to thrive in the industries and public services of the future.’

We also need to establish social mobility rankings for universities to reward and incentivise them to do more on this fundamental challenge – Professor Lee Elliot Major

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, highlighted the report’s concerns about lack of progress on widening access and participation.

“We need to up our game on widening access to universities, particularly the most selective institutions. This should start with comprehensive and transparent use of lower grade offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have suffered substantial learning loss this year in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

“We also need to establish social mobility rankings for universities to reward and incentivise them to do more on this fundamental challenge.”

A long-term advocate for social mobility and widening access, Prof Elliot Major has suggested a one-off special flagging system alongside exam grades in 2021 to identify a minority of pupils who have been most seriously affected by Covid-19, and in a report for Hepi last year, he found it would take nearly a century for highly-selective universities in England to meet the official access targets.

Ucas will publish further insight into the 2020 cycle at the end of January 2021, including analysis of students’ choices and motivations.


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