IFS: Raising GCSE attainment crucial to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university, but work to promote social mobility cannot end when they arrive on campus

IFS Observation by Claire Crawford ,  Lorraine Dearden ,  Anna Vignoles and  John Micklewright

Reducing socio-economic gaps in education outcomes has been at the heart of government strategy to raise social mobility for many years. Achieving higher educational qualifications enables individuals to earn more, on average, so if those from poorer backgrounds are less likely to attain these qualifications than those from richer backgrounds, then the socio-economic circumstances of parents and children will continue to be inextricably linked.

Because the benefits of going to university have been found to be large in the UK, access to higher education has become a focus of efforts to raise social mobility – although it is far from the only route. Despite decades of policy action, however, young people from richer families in England are still around three times more likely to go to university than their peers from poorer backgrounds, with nearly 60% of state school students from the least deprived fifth of families going to university at age 18 or 19 compared to less than 20% of those from the most deprived fifth of families.

Stark statistics like this are at the heart of why recent governments have pledged to increase the number of students from disadvantaged families, schools and neighbourhoods who go on to university – and some (marginal) progress has been apparent in recent years. But the slightly faster growth in university participation rates amongst those from poor backgrounds over the last decade or so pales in comparison to the overall size of the gap: a reduction of 1-2 percentage points in a gap of nearly 40 percentage points does not signify much in the way of substantial progress.

A recently published book, Family Background and University Success, written by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UCL Institute of Education, and the Universities of Cambridge and Warwick, the key findings of which are due to be presented at a conference at the Nuffield Foundation today, draws together the latest quantitative evidence for England, to provide new insight into what drives these gaps – and hence what policymakers might need to do to reduce them. It also considers socio-economic differences in access to different degree courses, as well as dropout, degree class and labour market outcomes. Efforts to get more young people from poor backgrounds into university will be ineffective if those students do not attend the best courses for them; if they do not complete their degree or get a high degree class; or if their labour market prospects are still not as good as those of their richer peers.

One of the key messages highlighted by the book is the crucial role played by attainment earlier in the school system in explaining socio-economic gaps in university access. This point is illustrated by the figure below, which takes as its starting point differences in the likelihood of going to university between state school students from the 20% richest and poorest families in England. When looking at attendance at any university in the UK (the bright green bars) this equates to a gap of around 37 percentage points.

Differences in the % of state school students from the richest and poorest 20% of families who go to university, controlling for attainment at different ages

Differences in the % of state school students from the richest and poorest 20% of families who go to university, controlling for attainment at different ages

Source: Figure 5.1 of Crawford et al. (2017), Family Background and University Success, Oxford University Press.

The remaining bars show how this gap changes when differences in attainment at various ages are taken into account. In other words, they show how much more likely a rich student with a given level of attainment at a particular age is to go to university than a student from a poor background with the same level of attainment at the same age. The smaller the remaining gap, the more important is that measure of attainment in explaining why pupils from rich backgrounds are more likely to go to university than those from poor backgrounds, and hence the more important it is to raise attainment at that age amongst poorer students in order to reduce the socio-economic gap in university access.

The second and third bright green bars show that the remaining unexplained gap falls substantially when we account for measures of attainment during primary school (at age 7 or age 11), suggesting that how well children do during this early phase of education is already highly predictive of whether they are likely to go to university. But it is the measures of attainment at the end of secondary school that are most important. The (missing) fourth bright green bar shows that accounting for which qualifications young people take, in which subjects, and which grades they receive at age 16, can explain all – not nearly all, but all – of the gap in university access between the richest and poorest students.

The importance of prior attainment in explaining socio-economic gaps in university access is not a new finding. But this figure uses more detailed measures of attainment than many previous studies, and is the first to find that the gap can be entirely explained by a rich set of measures of attainment at age 16. This highlights the importance of intervening early: if the government wants to substantially reduce or even close the socio-economic gaps in university access, then it must do more to increase the attainment of students from poorer backgrounds by the end of secondary school.

The dark green bars in the figure focus on the selected group of students who make it to university and attend a ‘high status’ institution. There are, of course, many potential ways to define ‘high status’; here we use information on the university’s average research quality, taking the 24 Russell Group institutions and adding any others whose average research quality is above the lowest in that group, giving around 40 institutions in total. These bars show how much more likely a state school pupil who goes on to university from one of the 20% richest families is to attend a ‘high status’ institution than a state school pupil who goes on to university from one of the 20% poorest families.

Looking across all state school students, around 28% of university entrants attend one of these ‘high status’ institutions. But there are large socio-economic differences here too. Nearly two fifths of university entrants from the 20% richest families attend a ‘high status’ institution compared to just 15% of university entrants from the poorest fifth of families – a gap of 23 percentage points.

Comparing this raw gap (the first dark green bar in the figure) to the other dark green bars shows that the relative importance of attainment at different ages that we saw across all institutions is repeated here too – with one exception: while we were able to explain all of the socio-economic gap in university attendance using attainment at age 16, we are not quite able to do this when looking at our group of ‘high status’ institutions. There remains a small – but statistically and economically significant – gap of around 4 percentage points in the likelihood of attending one of these institutions between state school students from different socio-economic backgrounds.

It is not clear from the evidence we have how much of this gap arises from differences in application rates to these institutions by students from different socio-economic backgrounds, differences in offers made by universities to students from different backgrounds, or differences in acceptance rates of these offers – but it is clear that more needs to be done to ensure students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are fully informed about the potential benefits of attending one of these institutions before making their university application decisions. (The book also shows that graduates from these institutions tend to go on to earn more in the labour market.)

Just as when looking at overall university access, however, the key to reducing these gaps remains increasing the academic performance of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds earlier in the school system. Of course, there are no easy answers on how to do this. But universities can and do play a role in trying to achieve these aims, with many institutions now working with disadvantaged young people or schools to help increase attainment at secondary or even primary school. The evidence on how effective such programmes are at raising attainment and increasing progression to university is weak though. The Education Endowment Foundation has been blazing a trail in this respect by trialling programmes to raise attainment amongst disadvantaged students in English schools over the last 5 years. But there is a clear need for more rigorous evidence on ‘what works’ to emerge from the university sector too.

Just as vital, though, is that universities continue to support students – especially those from non-traditional backgrounds – once they arrive on campus. Even amongst the selected group of students who make it to university, the book highlights further differences in the likelihood that those from different socio-economic backgrounds will complete their degrees and achieve a 1st or a 2:1 at the end of their course. For example, comparing students who arrive at university with the same school qualifications, and who study on the same degree course at the same institution, those from the 20% richest backgrounds are around 5 percentage points more likely to complete their degree within 5 years and, conditional on having completed their degree, around 4 percentage points more likely to achieve a first or a 2:1 than their counterparts from the 20% poorest backgrounds.

The book also shows that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to work in professional occupations after they graduate and are likely to earn less over their working lives than graduates from richer socio-economic backgrounds. For example, even comparing graduates from the same courses at the same universities, those from higher income families earn around 10% more, on average, than those from lower income backgrounds 10 years after graduation. Similar differences also persist at older ages and are only slightly reduced (to around 6%, on average) by accounting for all manner of other ways in which these graduates differ from each other – including prior school attainment and degree class, as well as ‘non-cognitive’ (social) skills.

Does this mean that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds should not bother going to university? Definitely not. In fact, some evidence suggests that the ‘returns’ to university – the average difference in earnings between those who do and do not obtain a degree – are higher for those from poorer backgrounds. Thus, while graduates from poorer backgrounds tend to earn less than those from richer backgrounds, average earnings for those who don’t go to university are also lower amongst those from poorer backgrounds – and the socio-economic gap is even larger amongst the group of non-graduates.

These findings all suggest that socio-economic gaps in educational attainment open at an early age and grow over time. All of the gap in university entry by social background can be explained by attainment at age 16. But gaps remain in terms of the type of institutions students access, and open up again at university and beyond, with differences in degree completion and degree class, as well as labour market performance. Closing the gap in both attainment and longer term outcomes is clearly going to require action throughout the school years and into, and beyond, university as well.

End note:

Copies of the book can be purchased from Oxford University Press.

Some, but not all, of the material covered by the book can be found in earlier freely available publications. For example, previous IFS research has highlighted the importance of prior attainment in explaining socio-economic gaps in university access. It has also considered the determinants of socio-economic differences in dropout, degree completion and degree class and labour market outcomes 10 years after graduation, as well as mid career.


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