Poorer students with good A-level grades are significantly more likely to opt for less prestigious universities than those with similar results from more advantaged backgrounds.
This is the standout finding from major research that throws into question how effective higher education is in equalising opportunities.
Successive governments have spent heavily to encourage disadvantaged students to go to university. The Office for Students in England recently set ambitious targets for wider access. But a team at the UCL Institute of Education say their research, published by the Centre for Economic Performance, throws into question whether simply getting poor students into university is enough.
They examined the “quality match” between students and the courses they attend, using data on a cohort who enrolled in university in 2008. A student was considered well-matched if they had similar A-level scores to others on their course.
They were deemed under-matched if they attended a course where fellow students had lower grades – suggesting they could have attended a more academically prestigious course; and over-matched if other students on the course had gained higher grades than they had.
Courses were also ranked based on the average earnings of their graduates five years later. A student was considered well-matched if their course had a similar ranking to their individual ranking based on their A level results.The research reveals that almost a quarter (23%) of students were found to be under-matched and a similar proportion were over-matched. Significantly students from low socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to be under-matched than those from rich backgrounds.
“It could well be that students from disadvantaged backgrounds might not feel that they fit in at more prestigious places,” said Gill Wyness, professor of economics, who led the research.
She added that multiple factors could be at work. There has been speculation that poorer students might tend to pick the closest university to home to save money. But Wyness said the research suggested the picture was more complicated than that.
“You’re much more likely to go to your local university if you are from a poorer background. But if you look at all the students who go to a university that is near them, the disadvantaged kids will still go to a lower-quality university than the advantaged kids. Take London, for example, the rich kids will go to the Russell Group, they’ll go to UCL, and the poorer kids will go to South Bank. Geography doesn’t seem to be the driver of mismatch – the poorer students are still going to lower-quality universities.”
Wyness said this suggested poorer students would benefit from more outreach work from high-ranking universities.
She cited the example of No 10’s behavioural insights team, also known as nudge unit, which conducted an experiment The team also found female students attended courses with lower future average earnings than men, something the researchers said had implications for closing the gender pay gap.
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