Significant progress has been made in widening access and participation since the start of the millennium, with nearly a quarter of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas entering higher education (HE), compared to just over 11% in 2006 — representing a doubling in the number of these applicants being placed.i
However, during this period, the gap between the most and least advantaged in society entering higher education has remained persistently stubborn, particularly in more recent years. In 2006, the most advantaged 18-year-olds were 3.57 times more likely to enter higher education than their disadvantaged peers, and today that figure stands at 2.09.ii
The rate of progress, whilst remaining positive, has slowed since 2008, and had the previous rate of progress continued, this figure would now be less than one.
Universities and colleges have overcome many significant challenges that many felt would have a significant impact on widening access, including changes to the student funding arrangements and assessment arrangements. Even during the pandemic, when many predicted a significant decline in disadvantaged students entering HE, we saw a 16% increase in accepted applicants from the most disadvantaged areas.iii Most recently, students also appear resilient to the cost-of-living challenges. The Journey to a Million presents a new and unique challenge. Whilst those previously faced by the sector have been during a period of a declining 18-year-old population, the widening access challenges presented by the Journey to a Million centre on increased competition and the availability of options to students.
The Journey to a Million will bring with it an increase in demand, and therefore competition, across the post-secondary landscape. As we have already begun to see, offer rates, particularly at the most selective institutions, will likely reduce (and encouragingly, to date, it is the most disadvantaged that are least impacted). We may even see some institutions increase their entry standards to manage increasing applicant numbers. In this increasingly competitive environment, there is a risk that it is the lesser supported groups of students that lose out.
Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to be at the lower end of the attainment spectrum, with 19.1% of 18-year-old POLAR4 Q1 (the most disadvantaged) applicants achieving grades below CCC at A level in 2022, double that of their advantaged peers in POLAR4 Q5.iv Assuming a consistent bell-curve on examination results, the Journey to a Million could bring with it numerically more highly qualified students, most likely at the more advantaged end of the spectrum. This could see more students meeting the terms of their offer, and ultimately making it more competitive for disadvantaged students.
Equally, this increase in highly qualified students could see less flexibility in ‘near-miss’ students. Each Confirmation and Clearing, universities and colleges across the country will have discussions about how far they deviate from their initial offer level. At some institutions, this could be a single grade, and at some could be over three. However, it is this area that makes a significant contribution to widening access, with 60% of POLAR Q1 students accepted with grades below the published entry requirement.v We also see contextual acceptances, with disadvantaged students given greater tolerance. With an increase in applicants, and more highly qualified students applying, the level at which universities and colleges deviate could reduce, or maybe not even be required. It could even result in fewer opportunities being available in Clearing — with disadvantaged (IMD Q1) students more likely to use this route to gain a place.vi
There is also a challenge around the navigation of choice, and this is twofold. Firstly, given the increasing competition, there will be a need for some teachers and advisers to adjust the guidance they give students to adjust to this change in market dynamic, and it is likely that the more resourced and informed centres will be the ones that adjust quickest.
Secondly, as competition increases, it is vital that we support students in understanding the full range of post-secondary choices available to them, including apprenticeships. We know that 1 in 3 students do not receive information about apprenticeship opportunitiesvii, and as the supply of students increases, it is vital that horizons are broadened to cover the full range of opportunities to give all students the best chance of securing a high-quality outcome. We also know that your background can influence access. The Sutton Trust report that twice as many degree apprentices are from the wealthiest areas compared to the poorest, which could be exacerbated by the Journey to a Million as competition intensifies.viii
The Journey to a Million will naturally see growth in students from all backgrounds. However, it is key that we ensure this growth in disadvantaged applicants does not lead to a growth in disappointed applicants or wasted talent, and instead positive progress is maintained (and even increased). As we saw with the pandemic, significant challenges presented to disadvantaged students can be mitigated through concerted and joined up efforts to counter this, and this is required again as we tackle the challenges presented by the Journey to a Million.
In this more competitive landscape, it is vital we present students with the full range of post-secondary routes. At UCAS, we’re seeing growing interest in apprenticeships — with nearly half of students that are interested in undergraduate study also interested in apprenticeship options.ix
We’re increasingly putting these opportunities side by side, broadening the horizon of students as they assess their options, bringing parity of experience, but also mitigating challenges around differing access to high quality information and advice. From 2023, students will be able to explore apprenticeship opportunities alongside undergraduate courses within the UCAS Hub, and from 2024, be able to apply for these opportunities via UCAS.
But with parity of experience, you need parity of opportunity. At present, less than 5,000 (5%) starts at Level 4 and above apprenticeships are for under 19-year-olds, with intense competition for these places.x One way of supporting widening access during this period of increased competition would be to relieve the pressure of demand for apprenticeship opportunities by reforming the levy to stimulate further opportunities, but coupling this with specific measures to support disadvantaged students as we also seek to provide parity of access. Could an Access and Participation Plan-like model for levy-paying employers work?
Similarly, there are undergraduate courses that are currently controlled — most notably medicine. Again, we could look to expand opportunities and places in these courses, but with specific accommodation for disadvantaged students.
There are also specific things that could be done in the admissions process. As we enter a new phase for widening access and participation across the UK, with the introduction of the Equality of Opportunity Risk Register, and a new Commissioner for Widening Access, it is vital these supporting initiatives are cognisant of the shifting market dynamics, and measures within Access and Participation Plans and Outcome Agreements are in place to specifically tackle the increase in competition. One thing I am personally in favour of is access thresholds — visibly lower entry requirements for disadvantaged students — to highlight to these groups that their context, and impact on attainment, is recognised. In Scotland, this has had a positive impact on the number of care-experienced individuals progressing to higher education, and UCAS and Universities UK are keen to explore a UK wide application.xi
UCAS recognises its role in maintaining positive progress in widening access as we approach the Journey to a Million. Following national consultation with direct feedback from over 100 stakeholders, our Fair Access Programme is transforming how we support disadvantaged students by designing and delivering new initiatives, whether that be personalised journeys for individual cohorts, to introducing new widening participation questions, to using data science to enhance our understanding of a student’s background. As the number of applicants increase, so will our understanding of this cohort.
In this more competitive landscape, effective outreach will be key. Our national consultation told us this is an incredibly valuable, but busy, landscape, with those more resourced schools and colleges better placed to navigate. UCAS is transforming this — in March we launched our Outreach Connection Service pilot ahead of a full release later in the year. This service will bring greater transparency to outreach opportunities, providing a central source for them and allowing students and teachers to connect to these. Furthermore, it’ll provide brand new insight into what works in widening access — meaning practitioners will have even more insight come 2030.
The Journey to a Million represents one of a long line of events that have presented challenges to widening access and participation, and through concerted effort and innovation these have been overcome. As a sector we ensured a global pandemic did not undo years of effort in equalising access, and I am confident that Journey to a Million gives us a million reasons to do that once again.
Head of Policy, UCAS
Ben has been at UCAS for over a decade and has been described as a ‘leading figure of higher education admissions policy’, with his knowledge in this area ‘second to none’. During his time at UCAS, Ben has led the response and engagement around every major political event that could impact on student progression, including Brexit, admissions reform, qualification reform, Scottish independence, general elections, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which involved forming part of three separate ministerial taskforces.
Ben has also overseen the delivery of UCAS’ key policy outputs, including 'Unpacking Qualification Reform', the first major report on schools’ response to qualification reform, 'Where Next?', a leading piece on student decision making, 'What happened to the COVID cohort?', the definitive assessment of the impact of the pandemic on student progression, 'Starting the Conversation', UCAS’ landmark piece on student mental health, and most recently, 'Next Steps', a first of its kind report looking at the sentiment of LGBT+ students as they progress to university or college. Outside of work, Ben is on the board of StandAlone, a charity supporting estranged individuals, as well an awarding organisation.