Measuring the gap: Social background data in Higher Education
Advance HE (and before it the Equality Challenge Unit) has published annual statistical reports on HE staff and students since 2005. The student reports detail differences in participation in HE, attainment, continuation and graduate destinations by students’ age, disability status, ethnicity and gender.
We have launched the 2020 report today, covering students studying in the academic year 2018-19. Headline findings include:
Age: The proportion of mature students has fallen by 11.3 % points since 2003-04
Disability: The proportion of students who disclosed as disabled has more than doubled since 2003-04
Ethnicity: The attainment gap between white and Black students was 22.6% points. If the current rate of progress continues, this gap won’t close until the academic year 2085-86.
Gender: Women continue to make up the majority of HE students; 57.2% of students were women and 42.8% were men. This gap has widened since last year’s report.
Advance HE members can access the reports and infographics here.
Here, I am going to focus on one of the new features of the statistical reports. For the first time, we have included data on students’ social background. Meanwhile, our Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, Gary Loke, has written a separate blog detailing findings about the attainment gaps, and lack of change over the last 15 years.
Why social background, and why now?
Interest in the relationship between young peoples’ social circumstances and access to HE is not new. The sector has undergone a number of expansions over the past three centuries, with admissions not only welcoming more and more students but also removing barriers that barred students from different genders, religions and backgrounds.
Even with the huge strides made since HE was only accessible to nobility, and the fact that over half of young people now attend university, large participation gaps remain between students based on characteristics such as the area they grew up, the type of school they attended or their parents’ income.
For example, there is a considerable gap in the progression rates for students from state schools who were and were not eligible for free school meals (FSMs). Specifically, Department for Education figures show that while 45.1% of state-educated students who were not eligible for FSMs entered HE by age 19, compared with only 26.3% of their peers who were eligible for FSMs. Similarly, the participation rate of students from more disadvantaged areas is much lower than for those living in more advantaged areas (e.g. by POLAR4 quintile). Most concerningly, progress seems to have stalled in recent years.
The Office for Students (OfS) was established in 2018 with the aim of significantly reducing these gaps, and HE institution’s plans to widen their intake are now given increasing scrutiny in the form of mandatory access and participation plans.
Trying to measure the unmeasurable?
One of the reasons social background has not been included in previous Advance HE statistical reports is the difficulty in quantitatively measuring and defining it. Despite the plethora of rhetoric around widening participation in HE, it is often the case that two reports about unequal participation have very different definitions of social background. Many commentators referencing ‘disadvantaged youth’ are talking about the vast majority of us; about people who were state-educated or whose parents did not go to university. Even for those of us engaged with the literature around inequality, our current social circles often frame our references of relative advantage and disadvantage (in many professions it is indeed the case that the majority of staff were privately educated). The opposite is true for other commentators, who believe that someone is only disadvantaged if they are in severe and persistent poverty.
In the 2020 Advance HE statistical reports we have chosen to focus on three overarching indicators of social background:
- Parental education – Students were asked whether either of their parents had a HE qualification, or not.
- TUNDRA and POLAR4 - These indicators are calculated rankings based on the postcode of students’ home address before entry to the course. TUNDRA (tracking underrepresentation by area) is an area-based measure of young participation in HE at age 18 or 19 for state-funded mainstream school students in England. POLAR4 is based on the combined participation rates of those who entered HE between the academic years 2009-10 and 2013-14 if they entered aged 18, or between 2010-11 and 2014-15 if they entered aged 19.
- School type – This is a marker for whether students attended a state or privately funded school or college pre-entry to HE.
Despite this range of information available, there are a number of data quality issues to consider.
Generally, data availability for UK domiciled first degree undergraduate students was high, however quality reduced when looking at non-UK domiciled students and those studying other types of degrees. For this reason, data presented in the statistical report only include UK domiciled first degree undergraduate students. This is partly because much of this information is collected on UCAS applications. This has however limited our ability to provide confident insights into the social background of postgraduate and international students.
Data quality of these groups of students was relatively high for TUNDRA, POLAR4 and school type. However, there are several issues related to measures of background based on a young person’s local area. In many areas, people struggling financially live side by side with extremely wealthy counterparts (and people somewhere in between the two). The area indicators are generally appropriate for overarching comparisons but tell us little about individuals. There is no way of knowing whether the student who attends HE from a low participation neighbourhood is relatively privileged. And while school type is strongly associated with academic success and access to influential professions, as noted above, over 90% of young people attend state schools, and there are huge variations in the backgrounds of these students.
Indicators of parental education have also been included. This measure is used widely in academic literature looking at the relationship between social background and educational outcomes. However, the indicator comes with its own set of problems. In the HESA records, parental education is reported by students, and many students reported that they do not know whether their parents have a HE qualification or not.
By presenting a range of information, we have aimed to give users of the Advance HE statistical report control over which measure most suits their purposes and to make their own decisions about the pros and cons of each measure.
The state of the nation: current participation and attainment gaps in UK HE
Our analysis revealed that:
- Just under half of students (48.9%) had at least one parent with a HE qualification. For 44.3% of students, neither parent had a HE qualification, and 6.8% of students did not know their parents’ educational status.
- Around one in eight students were from areas with the lowest rates of participation in HE (12.4% and 12.1% for TUNDRA and POLAR4, respectively), and around three in ten were from areas with the highest rates of participation in HE (29.7% and 30.4%).
- Social stratification was not only present in who attends university overall, but also within specific degree types and subject areas.
- A higher proportion of students who had at least one parent with a higher education qualification studied full-time (compared to students whose parents did not have a HE qualification). Similarly, a higher proportion of students who attended a privately funded school pre-entry to HE studied full-time compared to students from state-funded schools or colleges. There was a more even spread of students across TUNDRA and POLAR4 quintiles in part-time degrees compared to full-time degrees.
- The subject areas with the highest proportions of ‘first generation’ HE students were subjects allied to medicine, combined subjects and education. Subjects with the lowest proportions of first-generation HE students were medicine & dentistry and veterinary science. Other subjects with notably lower proportions of students whose parents did not have a HE qualification were engineering & technology, mathematical sciences, physical sciences, historical & philosophical studies, and languages.
- Degree attainment was highest among students from more advantaged social backgrounds across all measures. 82.7% of students who had at least one parent with a higher education qualification received a first/2:1 compared to 76.7% of students with less-educated parents.
Closing the gaps?
Whether or not you believe HE should be accessible for everyone, huge benefits can be realised for young people who continue study post-18. The most obvious of these is the financial benefit associated with university study, but HE study also offers a broader range of career options to young people, more stability and protection against unemployment in times of uncertainty, not to mention potential social, overall wellbeing and health benefits.
Given these benefits, it is a wholly uncontroversial view that entry to HE should not be determined by a person’s background, their local area or their parents’ income. However, in recent years the pace of change in the profile of students attending HE has slowed.
A recent study by the Education Policy Institute found that although the HE sector as a whole spent £248m on widening participation schemes in the year 2017-18, there is limited evidence that these schemes have been effective. One of the largest issues is that widening participation programmes often only reach a small number of students, and while hugely beneficial for these students, this will do little to change national trends. We also need to remember that HE institutions are just one part of the system, and real change requires schools, policymakers and HE institutions to not only work together but also to ensure their strategies are complementary.
That being said, there are clearly pockets of good practice, with many institutions doing great work in diversifying their student bodies. The more we know about what works at these institutions, and the more we highlight data that pinpoint specific areas of progress (or lack thereof), the more institutions and specific degree programmes can draw on one another’s knowledge, and target resources effectively.
Advance HE members can access the reports and infographics here.
On 28 October from 20:00 – 21:00 GMT we be hosting a Twitter chat discussing this report. The chat will take place from the Advance HE Twitter chat handle @AdvanceHE_chat and use the hashtags #AdvanceHE_chat.
Delve deeper into the Advance HE Equality in Higher Education Statistics Report at the ‘The privilege of student success: race and religion in higher education’ insight event on 5 November. Here we will offer further insights, analysis and solution-focused discussion on the correlation between race, ethnicity and religion and awarding gaps drawn out from the report. Book your place here.