The Third Degree – Re-examining fair access to higher education


Not every individual wants to go to university, and there is enormous value in the rich
tapestry of alternative training routes that exist. But pupils should have a proper choice
either way; one that is firmly embedded in a system that allows talent and hard work to
flow to their natural destinations.

For that to happen, we must boost resources for technical education, still sometimes a pale
shadow of its academic cousin. But we must also ensure that access to higher education
is not adversely shaped by disadvantage.

Regrettably, this is all too often the case. Just 12.3 per cent of the most disadvantaged
pupils in England access full-time higher education by 19. Staggeringly, these individuals
are also 15 times less likely to attend high-tariff institutions than their peers, and their
relative chances of doing so have fallen for the first time since 2006.

Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds face several obstacles to access. One prominent
barrier, particularly when it comes to getting places at high-tariff institutions, is poor
attainment. They are, on average, 18 months behind their peers by the time they take
their GCSEs, and only 2.5 per cent of these individuals achieve AAB at A-level where two
grades are in facilitating subjects.

But social capital, too, plays a part. Disadvantaged pupils do not have the same access
to networks (and the resources, coaching and experiences they bring) that can influence
whether they have the confidence to apply, aim for more selective institutions, or are able
to fine-tune soft skills that can boost the strength of their applications.

Clear, astute and impartial careers advice could help offset some of the limitations that
flow from this. Yet good quality careers advice in schools is desperately scarce – both in
relation to academic routes and vocational pathways such as degree apprenticeships.
And some schools inflict low expectations on their pupils.

Our predicted grades system also creates problems for high-achieving disadvantaged
students, who are more likely to be under predicted than their high-achieving peers. And
money, too, plays a part: some of our most disadvantaged pupils, who tend to be more
debt averse than their peers, are put off higher education by its associated price tag.
There is more still. Some schools appoint in-house higher education specialists. Top
independent schools clearly see the value in these appointees – not least, St Paul’s School,
which appoints 11. However, new CSJ-commissioned research shows that just one third
of state secondary schools appoint in-house specialists, and that advantaged schools are
nearly three times more likely to do so than their disadvantaged counterparts.

The collective weight of the obstacles faced by disadvantaged pupils is, therefore,

The government has tried to lighten some of this load. Providers wishing to charge higher
fees must spend some of their revenue on broadening access, supporting student success,
and helping students progress into work. Providers also allocate other sources of funding
to these pursuits. And the Office for Students (OfS) supports access, too. It is estimated
that, together, providers spent £817.7 million on outreach in 2018/19.

Although much of this work is admirable, there is room for improvement. New CSJ commissioned research suggests that more than one in six secondary schools were not
approached by a higher education institution for the purposes of outreach in the six
months prior to being surveyed. This figure rises to one in five for the most disadvantaged
secondary schools, which implies that the schools most likely to benefit from outreach
are the least likely to have been approached. In addition, eight out of ten primary schools
were not approached, which is concerning because children start to frame their future
opportunities early in life, and their impressions tend to stick.

We also have concerns about the nature of some of the initiatives that exist. Although not
indicative of the sector as a whole, some institutions have not been sufficiently focused on
underrepresented groups, have not had continuous improvement in mind, have not been
sufficiently ambitious for disadvantaged pupils, or have not adequately addressed the root
causes of poor access.

The sector has taken a number of welcome steps to address these issues. But there are
a number of outstanding problems. And while universities can contribute to fair access
in many ways, it is unrealistic to expect them to exert the reach, and level of individual
engagement, that is necessary to dismantle all the obstacles that exist.

It is time for a fresh approach. All pupils, regardless of background, should be free to
make decisions about their futures based on their talents. Currently, we cannot say with
confidence that this always happens – particularly for disadvantaged pupils who have
the ability to reach more selective institutions. In our report, we offer a suite of practical
recommendations which, if implemented, would give these individuals a fairer chance to
assess and realise their goals.

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