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Higher edu gap between England's rich and poor reaches 10-year high
Published on: Wednesday, December 18, 2019
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The poorest children are falling even further behind their wealthier classmates in the race to university, according to official figures released today.

The higher education gap between children from the most disadvantaged homes and their peers is now at its highest level for more than a decade, despite a big expansion in the number of university places.

The news suggests that far from making higher education more representative of the population as a whole, the increase in university places is disproportionately benefiting already privileged groups.

And in some regions students from comfortable backgrounds are as much as twice as likely to go into higher education than their less well-off peers.

More than half of young people in England now go to university, compared with 38% in 2003.

Although the proportion of students at English schools eligible for free school meals who go to university has risen over the last 10 years, the rate of increase is far higher among students from higher income families.

Eligibility for free school meals (FSM) is based on household income, making FSM a widely-used, although still debatable, proxy for disadvantage.

The proportion of children eligible for FSM in the 2017/18 cohort who went to university was 26.3%, up from 26.2% and a big increase from the 15.9% figure in 2007/8, according to Government figures released today.

But the proportion of children not eligible for FSM cohort to go to university has risen from 43.9% the previous year to 44.9% for the 2017/18 cohort, meaning the gap has increased from 17.7% to 18.6%.

This represents the largest single-year increase for more than a decade, with the gap at its widest since 2006/7.

The gap between FSM and non-FSM students going to the high-tariff providers — the most selective universities — has remained the same, although the latter are still more than three times as likely to get a place at these institutions than their more disadvantaged classmates.

In some regions of England the gap is even wider. In the North-East, for example, one of England’s most deprived regions, just 19% of FSM-eligible students go onto higher education, compared with 44% of non-FSM students, a gap of 25%.

And just 2% of FSM students from the North-East go to the most selective universities, compared to 11% of non-FSM students from the region.

The gap between men and women go into higher education has also widened, with 47.4% of female students going to university, compared with 37.2% of male students, according to today’s figures.

And the data also shows significant variation in access to higher education by ethnic groups.

Chinese students are the most likely to go to university, with more than three quarters (77.6%) entering higher education.

But the biggest increase has been among black students, from 44.1% going to university in 2009/10 to 59.9% in 2017/18.

White students are the least likely to go to university of the major ethnic groups, at just 38.2%.

But black students are the least likely to go to a more selective university, at 8.7%, compared with 9.6% for white students and 35.3% for Chinese students.

More than half of all students (57.8%) with a first language other than English go to university, compared with 39.7% of those whose first language is English, although the gap has narrowed slightly over the last year.

The gap has stayed the same at the most selective universities, with 11.1% of students with a first language other than English and 10.0% of those whose first language is English winning a place. -- Forbes

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