After several years of progress, last year’s admissions cycle showed signs that positive trends in widening and equalising access to universities were beginning to slow. Data released by UCAS in January on the current admissions cycle suggests that this slowdown is set to continue, particularly as the 18-year-old undergraduate market is squeezed. And so this morning we launch a big new data-led series on university admissions to understand the problem and begin to start assessing options for the future.
As new analysis on Wonkhe this morning shows, policymakers and politicians are too often failing to face up to the scale of the challenge before us. Achieving ‘fair access’ across the board will either require a significant expansion of the sector or a radical ‘displacement’ of places from the most advantaged classes that have become used to high entry rates.
We have modelled a system, based on a wide range of assumptions, where all universities’ entry profiles match the national socio-economic distribution: a roughly even split of entrants across each POLAR quintile. The results are a startling reminder of the challenges before us in making higher education access truly equitable, whatever you believe the prime causes of inequality to be. There are roughly 15,000 students from POLAR Q1 areas (the most disadvantaged) ‘missing’ from university entry relative to their overall population. By contrast, there over 17,500 ‘too many’ students from POLAR Q5 (the most advantaged).
Unsurprisingly, the iniquities are greatest at the highest tariff institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge. Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, recently made the case for the endowment of more Oxbridge colleges as a means to expanding opportunities to access the elite institutions. But there’s a risk, as Mark Leach and Ant Bagshaw argue on Wonkhe this morning, that if this is the answer then we may be asking the wrong question. In fact, our analysis shows that any realistic expansion of these two universities exclusively for the lowest participation neighbourhoods would barely make a dent in the overall iniquity of entry rates.
Mary Curnock Cook, the outgoing chief executive of UCAS, makes a slightly different case for aligning further expansion with efforts to widen participation. She argues that widening access in an overall shrinking 18-year-old market presents the dual opportunity of opening a new domestic market and providing a social good.
Taking Curnock Cook’s initiative ad extremum, we have also modelled how equalising entry rates of all POLAR quintiles to the current entry rate of the most privileged quintile. This would massively increase the overall entry rate for the sector, and the numerical impact would be huge: over 100,000 extra 18-year-old entrants to the sector every year. Some universities would have to more than double their intake in order to equalise their entry rates across the board without reducing the entry rate of POLAR Q5.
Our model of the extreme scenario is unlikely to come about and comes with many caveats. But it does show that if further expansion of the sector is difficult - something already proving true in Scotland - then progress in widening participation will become more challenging both in policy and political terms. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities out there. As Curnock Cook points out for Wonkhe this morning, there are 3,000 students from POLAR Q1 who have applied but who won’t get an offer this year. Even just increasing the entry rate for POLAR Q1 and Q2 to the overall average would create an additional 30,000 entrants, and sustained efforts to improve attainment and develop outreach make this an achievable goal.
We hope today’s analysis will help inform a fresh debate in the sector about the way forward.
Analysis: Looking fair and wide on university admissions - Wonkhe's David Morris offers a rough new model of a 'fair' system to uniquely illustrate some of the challenges for fairer and wider access to university.
Comment: If Oxbridge is the only solution then we're asking the wrong questions - Wonkhe's Mark Leach and Ant Bagshaw respond to the recent suggestion that founding new colleges at Oxford or Cambridge might actually help anything.
Comment: Widening access now has a business and social imperative - UCAS' Mary Curnock Cook on the strategies that will need to be adopted in the future.