Go back

Disadvantaged white boys least likely to progress to university

Government data show proportion of black students entering higher education has also fallen

White British males who are eligible for free school meals are the least likely of the main ethnic groups in England to progress to higher education by the age of 19, according to government figures.

Just 12.7 per cent of pupils in that demographic entered higher education in 2018-19, the Department for Education data show—down from 12.8 per cent last year.

Meanwhile, the overall gap in progression rates between free school meal and non-free school meal pupils has increased to 18.8 percentage points—up 0.2 percentage points since last year to its widest since 2006/07.

The progression rate to “high tariff” institutions—those requiring the most UCAS points for entry—for all state school students has increased from 18.1 per cent in 2017-18 to 19.4 per cent in 2018-19, the period covered by the latest data. However, independent school students are significantly more likely to enter these institutions, with 56.4 per cent progressing to high tariff providers.

Overall, white pupils are the least likely ethnic group to progress to higher education by age 19 at 38.3 per cent, compared with 47.5 per cent for pupils classed as mixed race, 59.1 per cent for black pupils, 64.0 per cent for Asian and 79.3 per cent for Chinese pupils.

Progression rates have increased for all ethnic groups in the latest year with the exception of black pupils, among whom the rate has decreased for the first time in 10 years—from 59.9 per cent to 59.1 per cent, the DfE said.

The data also look at which pupils are entering institutions with the best Teaching Excellence Framework rating, and show that students who attended non-selective state schools are less likely to study at institutions with a “Gold” TEF award than those who attended selective state and independent schools.

Some 40.2 per cent of students who attended non-selective state schools studied at Gold-rated institutions in 2018-19, compared with 50.9 per cent of those from selective state schools and 51.2 per cent of those from independent schools.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We must ensure that all those who have the ability, attainment and desire to pursue higher education are given high-quality options that will lead to the good graduate jobs that will transform their lives.”

He added that universities minister Michelle Donelan had “recently called for institutions to do even more to raise standards and aspiration in schools, such as through sponsoring schools, running summer camps and appointing student ambassadors”, and that education secretary Gavin Williamson had “set out his intention to fundamentally reform technical education, to level up opportunity across the nation for those who do not go to university”.

Speaking to the House of Commons education committee on 16 July, Donelan said it was not important to look at the demographics of those attending university.

“It doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university,” Donelan said. “It is about making sure that those groups that do go complete, that [their course will] lead to graduate jobs, but also looking at what is in that student’s best interests.”

Speaking on 1 July at a conference on social mobility, Donelan said universities had been taking advantage of students—particularly first-generation university attendees—by expanding “popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market”.

“Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market,” Donelan said. “Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of—particularly those without a family history of going to university.

“Instead, some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense. And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down—either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses.”

Research Professional News has asked the DfE if the minister’s comments mean that widening participation data will not be used to inform higher education policy, and if the department plans to continue publishing data on higher education participation in the future.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, said today’s data “underline how far we have to go in terms of equalising access to higher education”. 

“While government is speaking out against 50 per cent of young people entering higher education, these data show there are many groups who are at significantly lower levels than this,” she said. “If policy changes lead to less people entering higher education, it is likely these will be these groups with lower participation levels who are hit.”