by Stephen Tall on July 25, 2014
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has just published the latest figures of students applying to university this year according to free school meal status. What they show is that a higher proportion of pupils from low-income backgrounds are applying to university than ever before:
Around one in eight English pupils receive free school meals (FSM) and their application rate at age 18 to higher education is around half that of other pupils. For the 2014 cohort, application rates for the FSM group reached 18 per cent (a 1.3 percentage point increase, 8 per cent proportionally, from the previous cohort), and the highest on record. Application rates for those not in receipt of FSM were also the highest on record, reaching 37 per cent (a 1.2 percentage point increase, 3 per cent proportionally). This pattern of annual increases, with a larger proportional increase for the FSM group, is typical of the 2006-2013 period (except 2012).
Three brief points:
1) It’s clearly welcome news that applications from pupils from poorer backgrounds continue to rise. Opponents of tuition fees argued the reverse would happen, many scaremongering that a generation of disadvantaged young people would be put off – a potentially self-fulfilling prophesy that, thankfully, has failed to materialise.
2) That’s not to say there aren’t issues with the new system that need attention. Most notably, there has been a sharp dip in part-time and mature students (most of whom won’t be picked up in these data). It is also quite possibly the case that the rate of increase would have been higher without the new fees system. However, that universities’ income has continued rising throughout the unprecedented austerity of the last four years has only been possible because of the Coalition’s reforms — as I pointed out here, Tuition fees: still a good policy.
3) It is also clear that while the rise in applications for all students is welcome, the gap between those from poorer and wealthier households should worry us. This isn’t an issue of universities discriminating against poorer students. As UCAS notes, “there is a 19 percentage point gap between the FSM group and other pupils overall but this difference falls to between 1 to 2 percentage points across a broad range of GCSE attainment profiles.” In other words, the gap is the result of students from poorer backgrounds not achieving the exam results needed to progress to university. The key to improving the numbers of students from low-income backgrounds at university is addressing this attainment gap at schools.