Risk 4: Application success rates

Students may not be accepted to a higher education course, or may not be accepted to certain types of providers within higher education, despite being qualified.


For courses or providers that are competitive, students may not have equal application outcomes despite having the same attainment at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 as another student.

This can be due to admissions practices (such as the way a personal statement or interview is assessed, or the use of entrance exams), or the way in which a student makes an application.

It may also be due to students applying in greater numbers to certain subjects, or differences in the perceived quality of qualification types.

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

  • Differences in the way that an application is assessed, even where two students have the same prior attainment, may result in lower acceptance rates (measured in the proportion of offers made to applicants) and subsequently lower progression rates to certain courses and/or higher education providers for students with particular characteristics.
  • This impact may also be felt where students with certain characteristics apply in greater proportions to certain subjects, causing a ‘funnel affect’.

Students who are:

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

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 area-based characteristics. Providers may also wish to consider whether the mode of study heightens a risk.

For example, for each of the student groups listed above with an asterisk (*), students who have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years are more at risk that their counterparts who were not eligible for free school meals in the past six years and in many cases, the non-free school meals counterparts are achieving higher than the national average.

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

  • lower acceptance (such as application success rates) even when controlling for prior attainment
  • high application rates (sometimes accompanied by low success rates) to certain subjects
  • low application assessment scores (such as low scoring of aspects of some or all aspects of an application such as an admissions test; personal statement or interview)
  • differences in success rates at different stages of the application process (such as those not invited to interview/invited to interview but not selected).

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

Boliver V. (2016) ‘Exploring Ethnic Inequalities in Admission to Russell Group Universities’. Sociology. 2016 Apr;50(2):247-266. doi: 10.1177/0038038515575859. Epub 2015 May 12. PMID: 27904229; PMCID: PMC5117128.

Boliver, V. (2013), ‘How fair is access to more prestigious UK universities?’. The British Journal of Sociology, 64: 344–364, which has been published in final form.

Boliver, V.; Gorard, S.; Siddiqui, N. (2015) ‘Will the Use of Contextual Indicators Make UK Higher Education Admissions Fairer?’ Educ. Sci. 2015, 5, 306-322. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci5040306;

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

Custer, B.D. (2018) ‘Applying to university with criminal convictions: a comparative study of admissions policies in the United States and United Kingdom’. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. 40 (3), 239–255. doi:10.1080/1360080X.2018.1462436.

Montacute, R., & Cullinane, C (2018) ‘Parent power: How parents use financial and cultural resources to boost their children's chances of success’. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

Motacute, R., & Cullinane, C. (2018) ‘Access to Advantage: The influence of schools and place on admissions to top universities’. The Sutton Trust. (Accessed 12/02/2024)

Mountford Zimdars, A. K. (2016). ‘Meritocracy and the University: Selective Admission in England and the United States’. Bloomsbury Academic;

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

Noden, P., M. Shiner, and T. Modood. 2014. ‘Black and Minority Ethnic Access to Higher Education’. London: LSE. Accessed 7 June 2022. 

Rainford, J. (2021). ‘How institutional doxa shapes access to higher education through framings of ‘potential’’. Power and Education, 13(3), 171186. https://doi.org/10.1177/17577438211040021;

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;

TASO (2023) ‘Rapid review to support development of the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register’. (Accessed 12/01/2024)

UCAS (2022) ‘UCAS Undergraduate end of cycle data resources 2022’. (Accessed 11/01/2023)

UCAS ‘Next Steps: What is the experience of disabled students in education?’ (Accessed 11/01/2024)

UCAS ‘Next Steps: What is the experience of students from a care background in education?’ (Accessed 05/12/2023)

Waller, R., Ingram, N., Ward, M. (2018) ‘Higher Education and Social Inequalities: University Admissions, Experiences, and Outcomes’. Routledge

Wyness, G. (2016). ‘Predicted grades: accuracy and impact’. London: UCU

Zimdars, A. (2010) ‘Fairness and undergraduate admission: a qualitative exploration of admissions choices at the University of Oxford’, Oxford Review of Education, 36:3, 307-323, DOI: 10.1080/03054981003732286

Zimdars, A. , Sullivan, A. and Heath, A. (2009) ‘Elite higher education admissions in the arts and sciences: is cultural capital the key?’ . Sociology , 43 (4) : 648 – 666.

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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