Sharp social-class divide in university entry rates also found in state schools

13 December 2012

State school students in England who have university-educated parents are five times more likely to reach higher education than those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a study funded by the Nuffield Foundation has found.

It has long been known that pupils from independent schools are more likely to gain university places than those in state schools. But new research by academics at the Institute of Education, University of London, demonstrates how big a part family background also plays in determining which state-educated pupils go on to university.

Even after achievement levels at age 15 are taken into account, the children of university-educated parents are still twice as likely as their less advantaged peers to enter higher education. They are also twice as likely to win places in the 24 Russell Group institutions – the UK’s elite universities -- as similarly qualified HE students from lower social backgrounds.

The findings have emerged from a major analysis of university entry data for four English-speaking countries – England, Canada, Australia and the United States. The research was conducted by Dr John Jerrim and Professor Anna Vignoles.

The Nuffield Foundation is the principal funder of the IOE’s research into university access. Funding for this particular project has also been provided by the British Academy, the Sir Ernest Cassel Trust Fund and the Economic and Social Research Council.

The new study shows that the association between family background and university entry is notably stronger in England and Canada than in Australia and the United States. However, in all four countries, young people with university-educated parents are significantly more likely to go on to higher education and attend an elite institution -- even after prior attainment has been taken into consideration.

“Previous research has found that qualifications from elite institutions offer economic rewards above and beyond those from a ‘typical’ bachelor’s degree,” the researchers note. “Hence it is a concern that young people from advantaged homes are the main beneficiaries of this labour-market premium.”

The study also found that young people who have parents with intermediate-level qualifications are less likely to go on to university than their more advantaged peers -- even when they attend the same school and have similar test scores at age 15.

The social-class gap in HE entry is therefore not simply caused by less advantaged students attending lower quality schools or by schools failing to help pupils apply for university places, the researchers say. One implication of this finding is that “school peer effects” (for example, peer pressure preventing disadvantaged young people from going to university) are of lesser importance -- beyond their possible influence on age 15 achievement.

What do these findings imply for public policy? Jerrim and Vignoles argue that:

  • England, like other countries, needs policies designed to close the university participation gap between the ‘elite’ and the rest of the population. It will not be enough to try to narrow the gap between the poor and the ‘rest’.
  • Initiatives designed to boost school performance will be pivotal to reducing socio-economic inequality in HE entry. Prior achievement accounts for 80 per cent of the social-class differences in university entry rates from England’s state schools.
  • Although raising school achievement is a key means of reducing the social-class gap in HE, policymakers should remain concerned about the under-representation of young people from low and intermediate socio-economic backgrounds at elite universities.

The researchers add that although improving school achievement of less advantaged pupils should be the priority, universities could also be encouraged to use ‘contextual’ information (e.g. family background) when considering student applications. “This is a topical (and controversial) issue in England, where the social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn, recently stated that he would ‘like to see universities as a whole grasp the nettle of contextual data’,” they say.

Jerrim and Vignoles also suggest that some governments might want to incentivise universities to use contextual data by adapting England’s policy of allowing institutions to boost their tuition fee revenue by accepting unlimited numbers of very able students (those achieving at least AAB at A-level). The performance threshold could be altered for students from low-income families, providing elite institutions with a monetary incentive to recruit a greater number of able children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The fact that pupils from low and high socio-economic backgrounds do not start from the same place, financially and academically, needs to be acknowledged by universities and incorporated into their decision-making about bursaries,” the researchers argue. “This needs to happen alongside concerted action to narrow social-class gaps in pupil achievement at school.”

“University access for socio-economically disadvantaged children: A comparison across English speaking countries”, will be downloadable from the website of the Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education from 9am, Friday, December 14  

Further information

David Budge -