How do social differences affect HE aspirations and participation?

This project mapped the effects of social differences on young people’s desire to go to university, and their actual participation in higher education. It is based on quantitative secondary data analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE).  

The project focused on the young people's 'dreams’ of a higher education experience aged 13 to 16, and their ‘realities’ in accessing higher educational establishments and courses by the ages of 18/19, 19/20 and 20/21. 

  • There is clear evidence of social and cultural elitism in access to university in England. This elitism was far stronger in access to Russell Group universities.

  • Access to Russell Group institutes appears more determined (or fixed) by the age 15/16 than access to other higher education institutes (HEIs). 

  • Relatively low GCSE attainment at this age places access to Russell Group institutes out of reach for many. 

  • Overall, there are greater levels of social and cultural diversity within the non-Russell Group than the Russell Group student body. This could be seen as a reflection of the elitism of Russell Group universities but may also reflect efforts within non-Russell Group HEIs to widen access to under- represented and disadvantaged groups.

Full findings are presented and discussed in 'Dreams' & Realities in University Access: Mapping social differences in Higher Education aspirations and participation in England.

Project details



Mr Sean Demack, Sheffield Hallam University

Grant amount and duration:


1 July 2011 – 30 April 2012