By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


Two weeks after the deadline for UCAS applications to start university this autumn passed on 30 June, the Guardian published an article explaining how the demographics of applicants indicate progress.

‘Record numbers of disadvantaged UK students apply for university’ ran the headline. The figures show that 28.8% of students from the most disadvantaged areas of the country applied this year, up from 27% in 2021.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS told the Guardian:

“It’s really encouraging to see students from disadvantaged backgrounds apply in record numbers, despite the disruption the pandemic has caused to young people’s education.

“UCAS’s analysis shows that universities and colleges are continuing to support the progression of these students with targeted offer-making that we predict will see record numbers of disadvantaged students start university and college in the autumn.”      

Any progress towards education equality is, of course, good news. But does a 1.8% increase year-on-year reflect the progress young people in disadvantaged areas deserve, or has it in fact reached terminal velocity?

Is the headline all it seems?

In 2013, the figure for students from the most disadvantaged areas applying to university stood at 17.8%, meaning over the past nine years, the figure has increased at an average of 1.2% a year. This somewhat dulls the shine of the 1.8% increase in the past year; it is only marginally above average.

The figure of 28.8% of applications from students from the most disadvantaged areas in the UK is also dwarfed by the same figure for students from the least disadvantaged areas. It is over double, at 59.5%. The disadvantage gap is alive and well.

The leaky pipeline

And of course, university applications do not exist in a vacuum. To be studying for, or have earned the A Levels they need to apply to higher education, students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland need to have passed at least five GCSEs with a grade 4 or above (the equivalent of a C or above).

On 18 July, just four days after the Guardian’s story was published, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) released a report with damning figures on the disadvantage gap at GCSE level. The report looks at results from 2019, to avoid distortion of results caused by lockdowns, and compares the results to figures from 2011.

One of the key findings was that for students in England and Wales experiencing persistent disadvantage, defined as being eligible for free school meals for 80% of their time in education, there has been “almost no closing of this gap over time.”

The EPI uses months of educational development as a marker of the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged school students. The report looked at England and Wales and found that:

“In England, the persistent disadvantage gap was equivalent to about 23 months of education in 2019, with almost no change since 2011. In Wales, the persistent disadvantage gap was about 29 months of educational progress in 2019, which is also unchanged from the level in 2011.”

This significant gap in educational development has inevitable effects on the exam results which can shape young people’s lives. In England and Wales, around half of all persistently disadvantaged school students were in the bottom fifth of GCSE results in 2019.

In light of these figures, it is easy to comprehend the disproportionately and stubbornly low number of disadvantaged students applying for university. But it is not easy to accept.   

Stunted mobility 

An education system which is unable to provide equal benefit and opportunity to disadvantaged students, with the knock-on effect of a higher education system disproportionately populated by affluent and advantaged young people, creates a workforce and society which leaves disadvantaged people behind.

The opportunity to earn good GCSE results, whether to lay the foundation for a future university application, or to pursue a different path, needs to be equal, not heavily impacted by socio-economic background. The EPI report offered suggestions to policymakers for how to close the gap. The top bullet point:

“Targeted extra funding at more deprived schools has been shown to narrow the disadvantage gap. More funding should be specifically targeted at pupils experiencing persistent disadvantage in both nations.”

Another point the EPI report raised is that ‘a focus on teacher quality is crucial’ in deprived areas, suggesting salary supplements and high-quality teacher development could improve recruitment and retention.  

A lack of the required teacher training is also explored by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion, of which the British Science Association is the secretariat. The Group published a report in June 2020, an Inquiry on Equity in STEM education*.

The report found that:

“Many teachers are not equipped to know how to support students to avoid an ‘it’s not for me’ mentality and find a meaningful connection with STEM. This is not down to a lack of interest or will to tackle the issues, but a lack of time, resource, and support for continuing professional development.”

The ‘it’s not for me’ mentality can be a strong force in young people, infiltrating their perceptions of what they are capable of and suited to from a young age. Teachers can intervene and give their students the self-belief that is a key ingredient to high attainment, only if they are themselves given the support and resources they need. Teachers working in disadvantaged areas deserve the opportunity to have the greatest impact on their students, as much as the students deserve to benefit from great teachers.

The disadvantage gap cannot be left to fester for another ten years, cutting off young people’s opportunities before they have even left school. The foundation of a meritocratic society is equitable investment in the education of disadvantaged and advantaged young people alike.

*STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and maths.