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Behind the headlines: The complex picture behind the rise in future demand for higher education in London

  • 29 October 2020
  • By Diana Beech & Jack O'Neill

This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Dr Diana Beech (Chief Executive) and Jack O’Neill (Policy & Projects Officer) from London Higher – the body representing the diversity of higher education provision in London.

The latest HEPI report looking at future demand for higher education predicts big gains for London, with the capital and the south-east region set to account for 40 per cent of the estimated 385,000 full-time higher education places needed by 2035.

Having long been recognised as an area of high participation in higher education, as well as high graduate employment, it is all too easy to assume that in London the ‘job’s done’ when it comes to getting people through the doors of university and out the other side into fulfilling and rewarding careers.

Yet, another new report by researchers from London Councils and London Higher member the University of East London, looking into The Higher Education Journey of Young London Residents, shows us exactly why the positive projections for London can leave a false impression and why there is still more work to be done to ‘level up’ opportunity within the capital. In this blog, we highlight some of this report’s findings.

For a start, the London averages for progression to higher education mask considerable variations at the individual borough level. While 13.69 per cent of young Londoners have gone on into higher education from Harrow over the last five years, for example, that number is as low as 4.64 per cent for those from Islington – meaning that Londoners from boroughs with low progression rates are nearly three times less likely to enter higher education as those from boroughs with the highest progression rates.

Although the report offers no direct comparison to the five-year participation rate for districts in other English cities, the 2019 State of Equalities in Islington report tells us that Islington ranks third nationally on the income deprivation indicator for children and that there is a neighbourhood in every ward in Islington that is among the poorest 20 per cent of neighbourhoods in England – confirming the relative socio-economic disadvantage facing young Londoners in such boroughs.

Five year average of the percentage of young London residents progressing into higher education in individual London boroughs between 2014/15 and 2018/19

A more detailed look at the socio-economic background of all-London entrants to higher education reveals roughly 43 per cent (for which the report has data) come from widening participation backgrounds. And while the number of young entrants to higher education in London whose parents had been to university rose from 18,675 to 29,195 during the reporting period between 2007/08 and 2018/19, the number of entrants whose parents had not been to university actually grew further – rising from 14,520 to 28,385 – making many of today’s Londoners the first in their families to embark on higher education.

Despite many London higher education institutions welcoming students of all ages and at all levels of study, the predominant pattern of progression to higher education in London tends to reinforce the conventional notion of school-leavers heading straight to higher education for a full-time undergraduate degree. In recent years, the largest increases in participation have been seen among London’s 18-year-old population, although there was a slight dip in the numbers for the 2018/19 academic year, likely explained by the drop in the number of 18-year-olds nationally.

Young Londoners progression to higher education between 2007/08 and 2018/19

A young Londoner’s chances of entering higher education nevertheless depends heavily on the type of institution they attend between the ages of 16 and 18. While just over half of young Londoners (56.5 per cent) progressed to higher education in 2018/19 from school sixth forms including independent schools, only 17.2 per cent progressed from further education colleges and nine per cent from standalone sixth-form colleges. And when we consider that Black British, African, Caribbean and other Black students are far more likely to come from a further education background, it is clear to see how this exacerbates differences in progression between ethnicities.

Young London learners’ progression into higher education by prior institution and ethnicity (2018/19)

These differences are also apparent in the eventual higher education destinations of London’s residents. While White students in London are more likely to attend small, specialist higher education colleges, such as conservatoires, and Russell Group universities, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Londoners are more likely to attend post-92 institutions.

Progression into higher education by university type and ethnicity (2018/19)

Given the high number of top-quality higher education institutions in the capital, it is perhaps no surprise that the largest proportion of London residents choose to stay in London for their studies, with just under half (46.6 per cent) having done so in 2018/19. In fact, 14 of the top 20 higher education institutions attended by young Londoners are located in the capital itself, with the University of Westminster, Queen Mary University of London and Middlesex University having taken the highest numbers of young London residents in 2018/19.

Higher education institutions with the highest numbers of young London residents in 2018/19

In terms of the eventual outcomes for graduate Londoners, there are, again, clear differences between institutional types and ethnicities. While 88 per cent of young London residents attending Russell Group universities achieved a first or upper second-class degree in 2018/19, 75 per cent did so at pre-92 universities and only 67 per cent at post-92 universities – with these differences likely reflective of the prior achievement criteria required for entry into the different institutions. White, Chinese and Indian students from the city were more likely to achieve good honours than those from a Black African or Caribbean background – again, likely reflective of the type of higher education institution attended, relative local levels of deprivation, the type of school or college attended and prior entry qualifications.

Proportion of students obtaining a good degree by ethnicity (2018/19). Red line indicates the average.

Although in the majority of cases a higher education experience sets young Londoners up well for their future careers, Black or Black British Caribbean and other Black graduates are still more likely to find themselves in the lowest pay bracket for starting salaries, while Chinese, Asian or Asian British Indian graduates are more likely to be earning starting salaries at the higher end, up to £40,000 per annum.

Salary ranges for those in employment by ethnicity (2016/17)

For those who are interested in exploring intra-London discrepancies even further, the London Councils report contains many more interesting facts and graphs, including looking at participation in higher education split by gender, subject of study and pre-entry qualifications. The purpose of this blog, however, was simply to illustrate the dangers of looking at London and its residents as a homogenous block when designing future policy, and to show why Londoners and their higher education institutions are just as deserving of investment and targeted access programmes like Access HE as any other part of the country.

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