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Did the pandemic hamper widening access and participation in 2021?

  • 10 January 2022
  • By Ben Jordan and Ellie Rowley

This blog was contributed by Ben Jordan, Head of Policy, and Ellie Rowley, Fair Access Programme Lead, UCAS.

The pandemic brought with it a sharpened focus on disparities in society, and with it, unified efforts to minimise the impacts. The education and skills sector was no different. For the first time, with support from DfE, UCAS was able to supply universities and colleges with verified free school meal information about their English applicants. This has been long sought after by admissions teams. And for good reason – the Sutton Trust say that it is ‘the best available marker for childhood poverty’, something reaffirmed by HEPI’s latest report.

2021 saw a record entry rate for English 18 year olds eligible for FSM, with 20.9 per cent of these students entering HE – up 0.6 percentage points on last year, with higher-tariff institutions seeing the largest growth. There is no denying that there are students studying at institutions today who wouldn’t be, had it not been for this change.

The use of FSM is also one example where schools, colleges and universities have a consistent understanding of the circumstance of a student. In essence, they are speaking the same language. POLAR, a common measure of disadvantaged used by universities and colleges, isn’t universally understood by schools and colleges. Equally, Pupil Premium isn’t a common indicator used by universities and colleges, and would these be recognised by employers when recruiting apprentices? As we seek to bring schools, colleges and employers closer together in the raising standards and promotion of all routes, harmonising what we mean by disadvantage across education and skills would allow for a more joined up approach to support.  

Regional measures across the U K— derived using English IMD, POLAR4, SIMD, NIMDM and WIMD — saw an increased entry rate in the most disadvantaged students. Positive progress was also made in the participation of 18-year-old males and the white ethnic group (which typically has the lowest entry rate). This is, in part, due to the overall increase in the proportion of 18-year-olds entering HE, and flexibility shown by universities and colleges.

However, when combining a range of measures through UCAS’ Multiple Equality Measure,  we see the gap widened in 2021. Participation from the most disadvantaged students (quintile 1) decreased, from an entry rate of 14.6 per cent to 14.4 per cent, whereas quintile 5 increased from 60.8 per cent to 62 per cent. However, this is not a consistent experience across the sector –whilst middle and lower-tariff institutions saw a decrease in the entry rate for quintile 1 students, entry rates to higher-tariff institutions increased by 0.2 percentage points to 2.9 per cent.

Did we make a step towards levelling up in 2021?

Significant regional disparities continue to exist in participation to HE. In 2021, the North East had the lowest proportion of 18 year olds entering HE, with an entry rate of 31.8 per cent. London had an entry rate of 51.5 per cent – nearly 20 percentage points more. London itself is significantly ahead of other areas – the second highest entry rate is the South East, with an entry rate of 40.2 per cent.

All regions have had an increase in the 18-year-old entry rate since 2019. However– London has had an increase of 6.8 percentage points, whereas the North East had an increase of 1.4 percentage points. In fact, when comparing against 2020, the North East was one of two regions that had a declining entry rate in 2021 (with Yorkshire and The Humber having a 0.2 percentage point decline). Couple this with the North East having a static application rate (and the lowest application rate of any UK region), and being the only region to have a decline in A*-C A level achievement in 2021, we begin to understand why this may be. However, it should be noted the North East had strong growth in GCSE attainment, with the highest growth in achievement of grades 4-9, which will likely positively impact on future progression.

What does the future hold for widening participation?

The increasing 18 year demographic will boost demand for all post-secondary opportunities, with one million undergraduate applicants forecast for 2026. Without a significant increase in the supply of high-quality opportunities, the increased competition poses risks to widening access.

It is in this context that the ‘reboot’ of access and participation plans takes place, with universities and colleges playing an increased role in raising standards in schools as we seek to ensure positive progress. UCAS welcomes this, but believe support needs to be as early as possible. Our ‘Where Next?’ report identified that one in three students consider higher education whilst in primary school, with advantaged students 40 per cent more likely to do so. Recognising the attainment gap exists at an early age, it is at these key, formative points that action should start.

Standards are only one part – students need be able to access high quality opportunities that are of interest to them, and we welcome the encouragement to promote the full range of destinations, including Higher Technical Qualifications and apprenticeships. These opportunities are increasingly popular amongst students, with UCAS’ Career Finder being viewed two million times in the last year alone. The students that are interested in apprenticeships are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they tell us that navigating these options is complex. At UCAS, we’re seeking to bring parity across these opportunities, making it easier for these students to navigate these choices in a single location.

We all have a role to play here; at UCAS we recognise ours. As part of our recently launched Fair Access programme, we have undertaken a national consultation to understand where we can add further value to the activities underway across the education and training landscape. A key theme of what we heard was around relevance – what is available to who, and how do I access this? Consequently, UCAS is looking to help connect schools and students to the appropriate outreach activities and support, as well as continuing to reform the admissions service to capture more information about a student’s background. This could help raise attainment, boost aspiration, and make a key difference in helping young people reach their next step, whether this be an undergraduate course or apprenticeship, as we aim to support the education and skills sector in this new phase for access and participation.

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