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Do area-based measures have a place in widening participation activity?

  • 10 October 2023
  • By Tej Nathwani and Jenny Stinchcombe
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Tej Nathwani, Principal Researcher (Economist) at HESA, and Jenny Stinchcombe, Lead Statistical Analyst at HESA.

The merits of area and individual-based indicators in widening participation work continue to be keenly debated, including on the HEPI website (for example, in this piece by Sasha Roseneil).

In this blog, we illustrate that it is those living in the most deprived areas that are least likely to be awarded a first or upper second class degree. This is true irrespective of their family background. Based on our findings, we cannot therefore rule out that a ‘neighbourhood effect’ exists, whereby the locality leads to individuals being unable to reach their full potential.

The main conclusion from this examination is that area-based measures may have greater value in supporting widening participation activity than currently believed. Indeed, with rising demand for data at individual-level, these results suggest placing greater reliance on individual-based indicators may actually reduce the ability of the sector to provide equal opportunity for all.

Area-based measures: The arguments for and against

One of the limitations often noted about area-based measures is that they do not necessarily inform us of the household circumstances of an individual. That is, someone who is classified as living in a deprived neighbourhood may, for example, be part of a family with a large overall income or where both parents are highly qualified. The concern therefore is that such a student may not require the additional help (such as extra support in their studies) that is provided through widening participation activity determined on the basis of an area-based measure. On the other hand, there could be an individual who is part of a poorer household, but misses out on assistance as a result of residing in a less deprived area. The possible consequence of all of this is that policy is ineffectively targeted, thereby preventing the sector from providing equal opportunity for all.

However, what if being brought up in a deprived locality prevents you from reaching your full educational potential regardless of your household conditions? This is an issue that was examined by Emily McDool in her study on whether the association between neighbourhood and Key Stage 4 attainment varied by family background (parental education). She notes that her paper ‘may be important for policy since the results indicate that targeting children based upon their socio-economic status alone may fail to aid those with educated parents whose educational attainment may suffer due to deprived surroundings’.

Additionally, reducing spatial inequalities is a prime objective for governments in all nations, with higher education providers expected to assist with this aim by, for example, engaging with communities and supporting skills development in some of our most deprived localities. Meeting such ambitions and promoting greater social justice is one of the key reasons behind Peter Scott (the former Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland) encouraging the use of area-based measures (including on this site).

Can data shed further light on these two points of view?

That was the question we asked ourselves in our latest research insight. As some of you may be aware, we have been developing our own area-based measure of deprivation that seeks to address some of the known limitations of the Indices of Deprivation, such as the fact that they are not UK-wide and do not effectively capture deprivation in rural spots. This has been constructed using Census data on the qualifications and occupations of residents in areas that generally consist of less than 500 individuals.

We decided to investigate how the correlation between this measure and degree attainment (the proportion of qualifiers being awarded a first or upper second) varied (if at all) by family background – proxied in our study by parental education. Contrary to what has often been assumed, our own examination of the quality of the parental education field in HESA data does not suggest that it may be largely misreported and thus unreliable.

So, what might we expect to see based on the arguments presented above on the potential benefits and drawbacks of area-based measures? Well, if we were to observe lower attainment among those from more deprived localities irrespective of parental education levels, alongside finding little disparity in degree outcomes by family background among those in the lowest deciles, one would infer that we could not rule out the potential existence of a ‘neighbourhood effect’. This would mean that those from more deprived areas are unable to reach their full potential as a result of the locality in which they resided. Indeed, this is exactly what we find in our data – as the figure below illustrates.

Figure 1: The association between the HESA area-based measure of deprivation and degree attainment by family background (parental education). The sample we draw upon for our analysis consists of UK-domiciled full-time first degree students who began their programme of study at the age of 17, 18, 19 or 20 and subsequently qualified in one of the academic years between 2017/18 and 2020/21.

Final thoughts

It is perhaps useful to conclude by discussing the implications of these results in a scenario where the sector were to only use individual-level indicators to determine eligibility for widening participation interventions. Despite those in the bottom two deciles of our measure of deprivation displaying the lowest levels of attainment, support would not be offered to those whose parents did have higher education qualifications and lived in an area that was within either decile 1 or 2. Based on our findings though, this would mean resources are misallocated and not targeted at those who most need them, thereby reducing the likelihood of meeting the aim of providing equal opportunity for all.

The key take-away message from this study is that while there is a growing desire to see better individual-level measures being made available to those working in widening participation, we should not be too hasty in dismissing the potential relevance and value of area-based indicators.

We appreciate that within this investigation, we have only assessed one outcome (degree attainment) and used one individual-level variable (parental education). In future research, we intend to examine whether similar findings arise if we look at other points in the student lifecycle. This may include, for example, access to higher education and whether a person drops out of their course of study. Though not currently available in HESA records, it would also be useful to see if these results emerge using alternative UK-wide individual-level information, such as household income.

Carrying out these extensions to the work presented here would bring the benefit of enhancing our understanding of if, how and why various area or individual indicators may be helpful in ensuring greater equality across the sector.


  1. You can find the full insight on the HESA website. Thoughts and comments on the study are most welcome and can be sent to [email protected].
  2. If you would like to be kept updated on HESA’s publication plans and latest research releases, please sign up to our mailing list.

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