Low higher education participation, household income and socio-economic status

Young people from the least represented areas of the country are 32 percentage points less likely to go to higher education than those who grow up in a more advantaged neighbourhood.

The OfS has set an ambition that future generations should have equal opportunities to access and succeed in higher education, and to achieve successful and rewarding careers. This is reflected in our key performance measures and related targets.

To understand and measure progress in this area, we look at an individual or household’s social and economic position, using indicators such as income, education, occupation.

Students from more advantaged backgrounds benefit from more effective information and guidance from schools, parents and broader networks.

Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to experience these benefits.

Why is this important?

UCAS data from the 2018 cycle shows that 18-year-olds from low participation neighbourhoods (POLAR4 quintile 1) had an entry rate to higher education of 19.7 per cent, which is higher than ever before.

In spite of this progress, the participation gaps in higher education remain large with those from the most advantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 quintile 5) still 2.4 times more likely to enter higher education than their most disadvantaged peers (POLAR4 quintile 1). They are 5.7 times more likely to enter a higher tariff institution.

A 2018 report from the Department for Education shows an estimated 25.6 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals (FSM) at the age of 15 entered higher education by 2016-17. This compares to 43.3 per cent of non-FSM pupils. The gap in the entry rates between FSM and non-FSM pupils has remained at 17.7 percentage points over the past three years.

OfS data also shows that 8.8 per cent of young UK domiciled full-time first-degree entrants from low participation neighbourhoods (POLAR4 quintile 1) in 2015-16 did not continue in higher education after their first year.

There are differences in degree outcomes and employment outcomes between young graduates from different POLAR4 quintiles too. These are mostly related to differences in prior attainment, but higher education is not closing the gap and a small difference remains even once this is considered.


We encourage providers to use a variety of measures and indicators when exploring the underrepresentation and performance of disadvantaged groups. These measures include:

  • area-based participation in higher education measures (for example, POLAR)
  • other area-based measures such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), and the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI)
  • household measures, such as household income, free school meal eligibility
  • Family-based measures, such as levels of parental education (for example, families with no prior experience of higher education) or occupation.

Not all measures are relevant to every provider. This might be due to the demographics of their student population, where they recruit from geographically, or their location.

So providers need to think about which measures are the most relevant to their own context.

Intersections of characteristics

UCAS’s End of cycle report 2018 finds that, when we consider multiple measures, gaps between underrepresented groups are wider and that progress in closing these gaps has stalled.

Where datasets are large enough, we expect providers to examine how different student characteristics, taken together, can give them a better understanding of inequalities at their provider.

This will help them to more effectively target their access, success and progression activities.

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