This blog was kindly contributed by Clare Marchant, Chief Executive, UCAS.
The onset of the festive season each year signals the start of UCAS’ End of Cycle reporting as we aim to provide the sector with relevant and accessible analysis that looks back at the undergraduate recruitment year, while also providing valuable context to support decision-making for the current cycle. This year, we have again adapted the format in response to feedback, with our initial focus on providing actionable insights on widening access and participation.
Overall, the story is a largely positive one. Almost every measurement of widening participation available (and there are several) shows progress continues to move in the right direction, with more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds being welcomed into higher education. However, as has been the case since 2015, progress is slow, and a threat of regression looms without further action from us all.
Much of our analysis has been completed by using UCAS’ Multiple Equality Measure (MEM). By using the MEM, we can undertake more sophisticated modelling and draw out more meaningful and tangible conclusions.
The MEM is a multidimensional assessment of factors and brings the reality of the widening participation challenges for the sector into much starker contrast than, for example, POLAR alone. The POLAR4 entry rate ratio between students in quintiles ‘5’ (most advantaged) and ‘1’ (most disadvantaged) is 2.2 this year, whereas the MEM equivalent is almost double (4.2).
The MEM combines the effects of many measures (such as sex, ethnic group, POLAR quintile, school type and free school meals status) used in the analysis of equality in higher education admissions into a single value. This reduces the potential for blind spots in identifying disadvantage. Take students in the third POLAR4 quintile for example – these students could feasibly be considered neither advantaged nor disadvantaged. However, around 1-in-8 of them are eligible for free school meals. Single measures are less precise as it is much harder to identify the most disadvantaged.
The publication of today’s first report has been led by the statistic of just an additional 70 disadvantaged English 18 year-olds admitted into each higher tariff provider each year would be enough to eliminate the equality gap altogether within a decade. A further 70 students would only represent a 3.5 per cent increase in the yearly proportional growth in total higher tariff acceptances.
Clearly there are challenges to do that, not least a sufficient and sustainable expansion of capacity. It is also clear that the magic ‘70’ suggestion is not a simple lever that can be pulled to solve the problem. Applicants need to be keen to study, apply for the courses in question and be suitably qualified – a significant issue as widening participation applicants are already more likely to be at the lower end of the attainment spectrum. However, with universities and colleges – and the sector at large – increasingly challenged to raise attainment and aspiration in schools through outreach and partnership, these aren’t insurmountable obstacles. It would have been remiss for us not to highlight such a powerful statistic that uses a relatable timeframe as a possibility. We also offer less ambitious models whereby, for example, an additional 30 MEM group 1 applicants are admitted, resulting in a closure of the gap by 2041.
Though the positive steps we have reported are to be welcomed, we cannot ignore what’s around the corner. The impending rise in the overall 18 year-old population, the aftermath of the pandemic on pre-higher education attainment and the increase in uptake of apprenticeships and technical qualifications could easily combine to create a widening participation emergency for the traditional three-year undergraduate course.
What happened to the COVID cohort? contains several recommendations for policymakers, higher education providers and ourselves, including adopting a sector wide multidimensional measure of equality as the standard measure of participation to provide a truer understanding of progress. We believe that the MEM is the right way to go on this.
This past cycle has been unlike any ever experienced for admissions teams. Meanwhile colleagues across the whole education sector have gone above and beyond the call of duty to support students from all backgrounds transition into higher education. There are more hurdles to clear, but we hope the demonstrable insight we are able to share will give reassurances that they aren’t unbeatable.