Despite government pressure on universities to boost diversity, it seems that there is still a large discrepancy between the number of students going to university from poorer backgrounds and those students who are more well-off, based on figures from the admission pool for UK universities.
Wealth is not the only issue that students face when applying or while considering applying to higher education. Proportionately, the number of black students entering higher education in the UK has also not been positively affected despite universities’ concentration on diversity, with only an increase of 0.1 in the last year.
In the spotlight are the elite universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. These universities are currently are failing to admit enough students from poorer backgrounds and ethnic minorities.
The Office for Students (OFS) consequently has threatened universities with a fine of £500,000 if they continue failing to admit students from a diverse range of backgrounds.
However, if we look at the latest figures, they show that the more affluent students are still much more likely to go to university, compared to their less well-off peers. Entry into higher education is still a huge economic burden for a lot of young people, with the gap between students’ wealth at its widest since 2006-7.
The statistics show that 26.3 % of pupils who were eligible for free school meals went to university in 2017-18, compared with 44.9 % of students who didn’t. While the number of students from poorer backgrounds has not increased dramatically, the proportion of better-off students has risen in the past year by 1%.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was ‘worrying’ to see how this gap between students has widened. He says:
There is no single answer to this issue. The most pressing priorities are more investment in crucial early years education where gaps first start to emerge, and in 16-to-19 education which has undergone severe cuts over the past decade. Universities must continue to build on approaches such as the use of contextual admissions which take into account the background of students. And we need a greater focus on the funding and provision of high-quality, independent careers information and advice.
The director for access and participation at the Office for Students, Chris Millward, said ‘slow progress’ in the past years is why the new targets have been put in place. Millward also explained how the OfS ‘are working closely with the Department for Education and UCAS to improve access to the data – such as free school meal status – that universities need if they are to work in a joined-up way with schools to tackle disadvantage.’
The vice-chancellors are represented by Universities UK (UUK) and they are working to ensure that institutions invest significantly to enable students from all backgrounds to achieve their desired and best possible places in higher education. A UUK spokesperson has said, ‘it is clear that a number of challenges and disparities remain and there is a shared will in the sector to see gaps narrow further’. They have also expressed that universities would happily welcome the support from the new government in providing ‘greater support for part-time learning and targeted maintenance grants for those most in need’. This will hopefully see the disparity gap narrow in the coming academic years.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said:
A university education should be available to everyone who has the potential and institutions must continue to take steps to level the playing field for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and other underrepresented groups. We want access and participation to improve across all ages, not just young people. We expect universities to be ambitious in narrowing the progression gap between different groups so there is equal opportunity for all to benefit from our world-leading higher education.