Unequal lives – to university and beyond

This article is mainly based on new research by Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden,  John Micklewright and Anna Vignoles

Considerable emphasis is placed on the Attainment Gap at age 16. New research has shown that this inequality continues into university and beyond. In fact, in some ways it is worse.

However you measure social inequality, whether by family income, neighbourhood, parents’ occupations or education, there are stark inequalities in educational outcomes and opportunities.



The proportion of young people going to university rose dramatically from 1981 to 1999, but for the 20% with the lowest family incomes the increase was only slight and left them further behind. It went up from 20% to 46% for the children of the richest fifth, but only increased from 6% to 9% for the poorest.

Numbers have risen since then to an all-time high – 42% now start university at age 18 or 19 in England. There has been a rapid increase in poorer students, but there is still a massive gap. For example, 60% of young people living in the most prosperous fifth of areas enter university, compared with 24% from the poorest.

A growing class division among universities

A further issue is the difference between universities. Those with the strongest research reputation are assumed to be the best, though this might not be the case for undergraduates, as some staff may be too busy on research projects to focus much on students. Newer universities converted from Polytechnics in 1992 are often stigmatised.

The new research does not pass judgement on that, but does divide universities into roughly three groups in order to analyse the figures. The ‘top’ group of research-rich universities tend to set higher entrance requirements, so they are often referred to as ‘high tariff’. Whether or not they are better, employers often favour them in selection processes so that the students of these universities tend to have a better chance of graduate-level employment and attracting higher pay. As a stark comparison, five years after graduating, Law graduates from Oxford earn 3 times as much as law graduates from Bradford or Bedfordshire. Consequently which sections of society get into which universities is an important question.

22% of young people from the richest fifth of the population get a place at one of the “top 40” universities, but only 2% of the poorest fifth. The recent increase in student numbers from the poorest fifth of society has almost entirely fed into the ‘bottom’ group of universities requiring lower GCSE and A-level grades.

This cannot be put down to a lack of ambition, since 21% of young people living in disadvantaged areas applied for one of the ‘top’ universities but only 1 in 10 of them got a place. This compared with nearly half of applicants from the most affluent fifth of neighbourhoods.


Michael Gove insisted that comprehensive school pupils were doing the ‘wrong’ subjects. One reason for the EBacc was that ‘top’ universities looked more favourably on traditional academic subjects English, Maths, Sciences, Languages, history and geography. It is not subject choice that explains university admissions. 32% of the poorest fifth of state school pupils take 2 or more of these subjects at A-level (cf 43% for the top fifth; 56% at private schools). This is clearly not the reason why only 2% of poorer young people get into ‘top’ universities. The researchers fail to question an accountability system which leads to sixth forms deterring students from subjects such as maths which are harder to pass. They might also have raised questions about whether admission procedures for subjects such as medicine could be more socially inclusive.

It is even more extreme at two of them: nearly half the students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge come from private schools. Only 50 students were admitted who had had Free School Meals at school – less than 1%. Private school pupils are 100 times more likely to get into Oxford or Cambridge than free meal pupils from state schools!

Just try harder?

This cannot simply be happening due to bias. The researchers’ data analysis shows that the decisive factor is GCSE and A-level grades.

However, it is a mistake to suggest that students and teachers could simply work harder to increase social mobility. Poorer students have so much stacked against them that the very highest grades are often unattainable. Using the old GCSE grades, pupils with free school meal entitlement have only half the chance of getting C grades, but only a quarter the chance of getting A or A*.

Young people in deindustrialized areas often become demoralised during secondary school, as they are surrounded  by disappointment. They also don’t have the advantage of parents knowing how to support their ambitions, including hiring private tutors. It is significant that young people with graduate parents are 49 percentage points more likely to get to one of the ‘top’ universities.

It is also not ‘less effective’ schools that holds young people back, as Ofsted and the government seem to believe. There is a very large gap in results between the richest and poorest fifth of the population even when they attend the same schools. In fact, the difference is 27 percentage points even among pupils who attend schools rated as high performing.

What can be done? 

The researchers support some universities’ efforts in lowering entrance requirements to compensate for disadvantage. However they argue for support during sixth form and at university to ensure the highest possible achievement. For example, some students might need guidance in independent research and academic writing, skills which more advantaged students have learnt in their schools.

The key argument is that children from poorer families, and with less educated parents, need high quality nurseries to reduce the gap when they start school.However this gap grows during the school years, and especially in secondary school. The researchers recommend extra help throughout school to facilitate the best results. They recommend that universities should run more summer schools to give young people an experience of university life and to improve their qualifications.

One key omission is that the research team does not mention the abolition of the Education Maintenance Grant which helped many young people stay on at school beyond 16. However they do point out that money remains an issue at university: the dropout rate of poorer students is high, probably because their parents are unable to bail them out. Poorer students also need support to move onto postgraduate and professional courses.

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