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UCAS reports that a POLAR chill persists.

UCAS data released this week shows that the gap between rich and poor students is persisting and in the case of the elite universities it is getting worse. Meanwhile, in recent years there has not been a single intervention or initiative from government that was likely to have any chance of addressing the disparities in access to universities.
The latest data for UK university applications and acceptances was released yesterday by UCAS (2018 End of Cycle Report). This covers 2018 and comparisons are made for each year going back to 2006. The main headline will be the sharp rise in the numbers of unconditional offers made to applicants. This has risen from 27% in 2017 to an alarming 32% in 2018. In 2006 it was as low as 2% of applicants. There is no doubt that the Office for Students (OfS) will step in, albeit too late, to halt the escalation of this practice. However, if it is seen as a genuine ‘problem’, then it is relatively easy to solve by simply banning it in all but a few well defined cases. 

Access to university by disadvantaged groups is a tougher nut to crack.

More difficult to solve will be the ongoing low participation rates of students from the least advantaged areas in the UK. These have been defined by dividing the university intake into Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) by Quintiles. The POLAR areas fit closely to council ward areas with some changes to boundaries made between POLAR version 3 and POLAR version 4.(SEE TEFS ‘Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening’.) Those in Quintile 1 come from the low participation least advantaged areas whilst those in Quintile 5 are from the high participation most advantaged areas. It seems that the proportion of students from the most advantaged areas remains high and this has been increasing. Marginal increases in the proportion from the least advantaged Quintile 1 areas are matched by an overall increase in numbers and proportions of students coming from the more advantaged areas. UCAS also reports an almost incredibly wide gulf for entry to the ‘higher tariff’ elite universities between those from Quintile 5 and Quintile 1 areas. Simply put, the most advantaged students seem to persist in getting far better access to the top universities. Now the data shows that the gap between students form more advantaged areas and those from poorer areas is widening (also reported in The Independent this week 'Gap between rich and poor students at top universities widens for first time').  This is going exactly in the opposite direction for a failing government

Looking at the overall numbers.

The UCAS reporting almost always uses proportions or percentages to illustrate the very slow rise in numbers from Quintile 1 areas and also looks at the ratio between numbers from Quintile 5 and Quintile 1 areas. However, more detailed data is available from UCAS and by considering the total numbers a more interesting picture across the UK is revealed. 

Figure 1 shows the overall numbers (x1000) since 2006. This produces a clearer picture overall of the numbers involved and the stark disadvantages that exist for tens of thousands. Also, when broken down into the four jurisdictions, some major differences in access are visible. The total numbers for England swamp the overall picture. The gulf between students of most and least advantaged areas is widest in Scotland. However, in Scotland the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) methodology, that divides the country into smaller areas, is a bit more flattering. The situation in Northern Ireland is as expected but with Quintile 2 areas having much lower numbers than elsewhere. However, in Wales there is a radically different pattern with a more equitable access across Quintiles 2 to 5. But sadly those living in POLAR Quintile 1 areas are yet again less likely to gain access to university.

Wherever one looks across the UK, regardless of the funding regime in place, there seems to be a wide and persistent gulf between the most advantaged and the least advantaged. The evidence is in and the disparities are profound.

Causes and remedies.
TEFS has been studying data and policies for well over a year and there has not been a single intervention or initiative from government that was likely to have any chance of addressing the disparities in access to universities. Apparent inaction by the Social Mobility Commission  over several years is combined with a stand off approach from government. Both are more concerned with gathering even more data. The Social Mobility Commission has surveyed the attitudes of people and the Minister responsible for Higher Education concentrated on the virtues of more data and spending on 'outreach'. In a speech this week, 'Universities Minister sets vision for higher education', at the elite RADA, Chris Skidmore concentrated on making improvements by 2030 and in the meantime gathering more data.

Instead a variety of charitable organisations such as the Sutton Trust, Standalone and Brightside have grasped the nettle and made a difference where they could. However, the total numbers involved overwhelm what they can do overall. The POLAR and SIMD methodologies, whilst convenient for gaining a crude overall picture, are limited in being unable to see the more detailed situation for many students in the least advantaged areas. The methodology tends to hide a wider and systemic problem of disadvantage and does nothing to determine the circumstances of individuals. There will be individual students in many areas that are denied opportunities because of lack of family resources. Targeting POLAR Quintile 1 areas to attract students will no doubt net those that have more resources in what are relatively wide geographic areas. Instead, the profound poverty that many families struggle with needs to be addressed. Failure to do that is why only marginal improvements can be made. The remedy lies in a much deeper intervention to support families and schools in the communities.

Lack of data being challenged.

A short article on data sharing from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) is likely to have gone largely unnoticed in the Brexit crisis this week. However, it is also a serious issued that must be considered. In ‘Is UCAS fit for purpose?’ Dean Machin (Strategic Policy Adviser at the University of Portsmouth) bemoans the fact that UCAS holds back a considerable amount of rich data with “UCAS’s record suggests that it prefers not to publish much institution-level data. The release of unconditional offers data is only occurring because UCAS has come under pressure from the Government and the media”.

Indeed, we can easily conclude that this is case. The idea that ‘commercial sensitivity’ trumps access and social mobility should be challenged. Indeed, the OfS surely has the right to bring all of the data together. Machin reminds us that UCAS is governed by the universities itself. Thus it is hardly independent in its outlook. Previously TEFS raised this point across all of the data gathered about our universities with ‘The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans?’ It seems that the universities themselves control most of the data that determines the direction of government policy. In contrast the Office for National Statistics (ONS) governs the reporting of all other important data for government. Since 2006 it has been a non-ministerial body that is entirely independent. It would be better if the ONS directly governed the reporting of university data. The fact that, unlike the ONS, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is not subject to freedom of information rules is not acceptable.

Equally, it is not acceptable to ask universities or schools to sort out the access issues alone. There needs to be a wider move to address widespread poverty and improve access to resources needed to help the least advantaged students; whatever POLAR Quintile area they come from. The time for more academic studies and data staring is over. Now is the time for taking action before yet another generation of talent is lost.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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