‘Unprecedented’ fall in entry rate for disadvantaged students

Analysis by dataHE shows entry rates fell among all students, but was steepest for the most under-represented

September 4, 2023
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The higher education entry rate for the most under-represented students in England has fallen by a record margin, according to new figures.

Two weeks after A-level results day, data from the admission service Ucas showed that around 27,000 18-year-olds from areas with the lowest levels of university participation had been accepted onto courses.

Analysts at dataHE said that the entry rate for this group had fallen from 24.7 per cent last year to 23.1 per cent in 2023, which their modelling showed was the largest on record.

Mark Corver, co-founder of dataHE, said this drop – which pushed the entry rate below the pre-pandemic trend – was “unprecedented” and equated to these young people becoming more than 6 per cent less likely to go to university.

“Although it has been a very difficult year for all young people in England in terms of getting in, entry chances for those least likely to go to university have been particularly hard-hit,” he said.

The dataHE analysis – which allows for comparisons with much older data than Ucas provides – suggested that the fall was likely to be the first since much smaller drops in the mid-1990s.

After record numbers of 18-year-olds failed to achieve their predicted high A-level grades, the figures showed a more complete picture of entrants into higher education after two weeks of clearing.

Falls in entry rates among the most disadvantaged students were sharper for women than men and varied across the UK.

And while entry rates rose for Northern Irish 18-year-olds, those in the north-east of England and Wales saw the steepest declines.

After the dramatic improvements in reducing university entry inequalities of recent years, Dr Corver said the drop could be enough to “wipe out the differential benefits of a decade of widening participation spending”.

“Most working in widening participation across universities will never have seen year-on-year reductions in under-represented entry rates,” he said.

“They will no doubt be highly disappointed to see the poorest results for equality for a generation despite all their efforts. More data to understand what is going on is needed.”

A second successive fall in entry rates across all students had already prompted concerns of strategic uncertainty within the sector.

The new figures are based on the Polar classification, which groups neighbourhoods based on the proportion of the young population that participates in higher education – from quintile 1 (the lowest rates) to quintile 5 (the highest).

While entry rates also fell for high-participation areas, it was around half of the fall experienced by those in the most disadvantaged, according to dataHE’s analysis.

Antony Moss, pro vice-chancellor of education and student experience at London South Bank University, said the fall in entry rates for those in Polar quintile 1 was not a surprise.

“Financial support for disadvantaged students has dwindled in recent years with no action taken to keep up with inflation,” he said.

“A real-terms cut in the maximum loan for disadvantaged students coupled with a freeze in the income threshold for students eligible for these loans means there is less funding available for the poorest students.

“More students from the poorest backgrounds are choosing not to apply to university, which is surely linked to the erosion of financial support through the loans system.”


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