New deprivation data could improve university outreach, says Hesa

The new scale relies on much smaller geographic territories than the other comparative data sets available

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) has developed a UK-wide measure of deprivation, superseding less granular indices and offering universities more exact tools to improve outreach and social mobility.

The new scale – referred to at this stage only as “the Hesa measure” – relies on much smaller geographic territories than either Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) or Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and is, therefore, more precise in places like London with highly divergent neighbourhoods.

Hesa collected data for 274,611 separate UK areas. In England and Wales, each group comprises approximately 125 households – in Northern Ireland, it’s 160, and in Scotland, it’s between 20 and 78.

Researchers at Hesa used the 2011 Census to identify parts of the UK where relatively few adults have a qualification above that of an A-level and work in managerial, administrative or professional occupations. The 20% of places – around 26,500 neighbours – at the top of the table are classed as ‘disadvantaged’.

[Universities] need access to data that can assist them in identifying those areas where they should prioritise their outreach and widening participation activities
– Tej Nathwani, Hesa

The figures are not a definitive measure of disadvantage – but “appropriate area-based measures can be helpful in enabling providers to pinpoint the localities in which they should prioritise”, the statistics agency said.

Hesa calculated the overlap between its new measure and the others commonly used by universities. Less than half of the disadvantaged areas on Hesa’s list appear on the comparative POLAR list. Hesa’s list features more parts of the north and midlands than the other measures available. Seven per cent of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the UK are located in Birmingham, the most of any city, Hesa said.

Tej Nathwani, a principal researcher at Hesa, said the organisation is considering updating its figures with the 2021 Census when it is released.

Writing in a blog published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), Nathwani said: “Present policy objectives in the UK centre around ensuring there is equal opportunity for all and that nobody is left behind. There is also an ambition for the benefits of growth to be distributed more evenly across the country. Higher education is expected to play a key role in meeting these aspirations, with outreach activity that helps those from disadvantaged communities consider and access study being an important first step.

“However, in order for providers to be able to do this, they need access to data that can assist them in identifying those areas where they should prioritise their outreach and widening participation activities.”

Read more: ‘Level up’ research funding for universities in deprived places, says MillionPlus

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