‘Worrying’ widening participation statistics, says Elliot Major

A professor of social mobility has described the latest university widening participation figures as a “backward step for social mobility”

Latest government statistics on the number of disadvantaged students going to university, which show stark regional differences and rising inequality for children from poorer families, “are hugely worrying”, a professor of social mobility has said.

Prof Lee Elliot Major – a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter – described the figures as a “backward step for social mobility”.

Statistics show that 26.6% of young adults that received free school meals (FSM) went to university in 2019/20, the highest recorded level and up from 14.2% in 2005/06.

But the gap between FSM pupils and their peers has widened every year since 2013/14, growing to 19.1 percentage points, the widest since 2005/06.

The widening participation statistics found that almost half of FSM pupils in inner London got to higher education by age 19 that year – compared to fewer than a fifth in the East Midlands, East of England, South East and South West. The South West has the worst figures anywhere in England: just 17.1% of FSM pupils reached university in 2019/20.

University access efforts are facing a perfect storm
– Prof Lee Elliot Major, University of Exeter

Elliot Major said the statistics were worrying “particularly given that efforts by universities to attract students from poorer backgrounds will be put back years following the pandemic”. The figures released by the government yesterday (14 October) are for university entries before the coronavirus pandemic.

“University access efforts are facing a perfect storm – larger learning loss suffered during the pandemic by poorer pupils, the cancellation of face-to-face university outreach work, and increasing competition for degree places fuelled by grade inflation,” he said.

This year, 44% of A-level entries received an A or A* grade.

London outperformed all other regions of the UK in the widening participation metrics. FSM pupils in London statistically had a better chance of getting to university than those in any other part of the country – in some cases, four times more likely. FSM pupils in inner London were statistically just as likely to go to university as students that did not receive FSM in the West Midlands.

The statistics show that 38.7% of white students went to university, making them the group statistically least likely to go to university, compared to 59.9% for Black, 64.3% for Asian and 80.9% for Chinese pupils.

The figures suggest that more Black pupils than ever are making it to university – the progression rate increased by 15.8 percentage points in 2019/20 compared to a decade. But this increase appears to mask more sluggish recent progression figures, which have only improved by 0.1 percentage point since 2016/17. Black Caribbean pupils are the least likely to make it to a higher tariff university.

Students with special education needs (SEN) remain severely disadvantaged and are statistically unlikely to make it to university, the DfE release said.

Read more: Smaller ethnicity awarding gap tied to Covid exam policies, Advance HE suggests

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