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Getting more under-represented groups into university must never rely solely on raw data, argues Stephen Gorard.

There is a widespread belief that some socio-economic groups are unfairly under-represented on undergraduate courses in the UK (and elsewhere). Acting on this belief, policymakers and practitioners have sought to widen participation in higher education to include more students from these apparently under-represented groups. This is different from merely increasing the number of available places which, history shows, is definitely linked to greater participation by such groups. Widening participation works on the basis not of dramatically increasing numbers but of seeking a different kind of student to replace the more traditional kinds.

Until recently the most common approach involved outreach work in relatively deprived schools and enrichment activities on campus. This approach has never been robustly evaluated, so no one knows whether it works or not. But such activities are unlikely to have made much difference to the number of disadvantaged students attending university. This is because universities are selective in their intakes and generally demand the highest prior qualifications that they can get while still filling their places. Each university’s position in the pecking order is largely based on the grades they can demand that young people have on entry. Because qualifications such as GCSE and A-levels are stratified by the same variables that efforts to widen participation are intended to address, such as social class and poverty, the selective nature of the system makes it just about impossible to achieve.

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