Risk 3: Perception of higher education

Students may not feel able to apply to higher education, or certain types of providers within higher education, despite being qualified.


Even where a student has the grades and information or guidance required to choose a particular course or provider, they may not apply.

This can be due to a number of factors, including (but not limited to):

  • financial or familial circumstances
  • perception of the provider
  • limited course provision (such as having no part-time courses).

Experiencing this risk is likely to impact a student at the access, on-course and at the progression stages of their education.

  • When attainment is controlled for, a reluctance to apply for certain providers and/or courses by some students can lead to lower application rates to certain providers and/or courses by students with certain characteristics, and subsequently lower progression rates.

Students who are:

  • children in need
  • care experienced
  • from Gypsy, Traveller or Roma ethnic groups, or the Boater and Showmen communities
  • other ethnicity
  • white students
  • black students
  • mature
  • first in family
  • from a low household income.

Note that this ordering does not denote a scale or ranking system.


It is important to consider how different student characteristics might interact with each other, and with school and areas-based characteristics. Providers may also wish to consider whether the mode of study heightens a risk.

For different groups of students, the impact of these risks that are visible in data might be:

  • lower application rates either to the provider as a whole or to particular courses (where prior attainment is controlled for)
  • lower progression rates to the provider as a whole, or to particular courses (where prior attainment is controlled for).

Although this is a national risk, the extent to which it is seen at each provider may depend on factors such as:

  • location
  • entrance tariff
  • whether the provider recruits nationally or locally.

We therefore encourage provider to examine their own data and establish if this risk to equality of opportunity affects their current or potential student population.

Baars, S., E. Mulcahy, and E. Bernardes. 2016. ‘The Underrepresentation of White Working Class Boys in Higher Education the Role of Widening Participation.’

Bowes, L., J. Evans, T. Nathwani, G. Birkin, A. Boyd, C Holmes, and S Jones. (2015) ‘Understanding Progression into Higher Education for Disadvantaged and under-represented Groups.’

C McCabe, K Keast & M. S Kaya (2022) ‘Barriers and facilitators to university access in disadvantaged UK adolescents by ethnicity: a qualitative study, Journal of Further and Higher Education’, 46:10, 1434-1446, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2022.2086037

Callender, C. & Melis, G. (2022) ‘The privilege of choice: how prospective college students’ financial concerns influence their choice of higher education institution and subject of study in England’. The Journal of Higher Education. 93 (3), 477–501. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2021.199616

Campbell, S., Macmillan, L., Wyness, G., Bryson, A., Stokes, L., & Wilkinson, D. (2019) ‘Mismatch in higher education: prevalence, drivers and outcomes’

Crawford & Greaves, E. (2015) ‘Socio-economic, ethnic and gender differences in HE participation’. Department for Business Innovation & Skills

Easterbrook, M. J., Harris, P. R., & Sherman, D. K. (2021). ‘Self-affirmation theory in educational contexts’. Journal of Social Issues, 77, 683–701.  https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12459;Nieuwenhuis

Entry rates into higher education’. (Accessed 10/12/23)

HEPI (2023) ‘Student Academic Experience Survey 2023’. HEPI. (Accessed 12/12/2023)

Hillman, N., and N. Robinson (2016.) ‘Boys to Men: The Underachievement of Young Men in Higher education-and How to Start Tackling It’. Higher Education Policy Institute Oxford.

K Ellis, C Johnston (2019) ‘Pathways to University from Care: Findings Report One’. DOI: 10.15131/shef.data.9578930) Pathways findings report (1).pdf

London School of Economics (2021): ‘Journeys into higher education and employment: The impact of covid-19 on young people’.

M., Manstead, A. S. R., & Easterbrook, M. J. (2019). ‘Accounting for unequal access to higher education: The role of social identity factors. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations’, 22, 371–389.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430219829824

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sabri, D., Moore, J., Sanders, J., Jones, S. & Higham, L. (2015) ‘Causes of differences in student outcomes’. HEFCE.

Office for National Statistics (2023), released 24 February 2023, ONS website, statistical bulletin, ‘Cost of living and higher education students, England: 30 January to 13 February 2023’

Reay, D., Crozier, G. & Clayton, J., (2010) ‘‘Fitting in’ or ‘standing out’: Working-class students in UK higher education’. British Educational Research Journal. 36(1), 107–124;

Sammons, P. M., K. Toth, and K. Sylva. 2015. ‘Background to Success: Differences in A-level Entries by Ethnicity, Neighbourhood and Gender’. London: The Sutton Trust. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

UCAS: ‘Where Next? What influences the choices school leavers make?’ (Accessed 11/01/2023)

Published 29 March 2023
Last updated 18 January 2024
18 January 2024
We have published a list of references that informed this risk.

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