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Huge variation in disadvantaged student access to university

Image: Tero Vesalainen, via Shutterstock

Report reveals postcode lottery for “free school meal” students accessing higher education

Young people from “free school meal” backgrounds in some areas of the country are five times more likely to go to university than those in other areas, according to a report by the National Education Opportunities Network.

The report—Universities Not for Everyone: levelling up and who is missing out on higher education in England—looks at progression to higher education among disadvantaged young people from 2005-06 to 2021-22.

It finds that less than 10 per cent of all the state-educated pupils progressing to higher education by age 19 in 2021-22 were eligible for free school meals—a proxy measure of disadvantage.

The area with the highest FSM participation rate was Westminster, with 66 per cent progressing to higher education. The lowest was Swindon, where the rate was less than 14 per cent.

Across England as a whole, there was an increase of 44 per cent in participation of FSM students in higher education between 2011-12 and 2021-22, the report finds. 

Areas of slow progress

But some areas are making “very slow progress”, with 15 reporting an increase of less than 25 per cent over the period, while in two areas—Leicester and Blackpool—the progression rate actually declined.

The average participation rate was inflated by London boroughs, which consistently reported above-average progression.

Graeme Atherton, director of Neon and author of the report, said: “We need to reconnect widening access to higher education with opportunity, levelling up and social mobility.

“Participation in higher education will increasingly be the avenue to better-paid, secure employment over the coming years, and learners from low-income backgrounds in communities across the country are being excluded from it.”