Category Archives: Research

The phenomenon of university undermatch, and why getting poor students into university just isn’t enough

By Gill Wyness and Lindsey Macmillan

Higher education has long been thought of as a tool to equalise opportunities, with governments around the world spend billions per year on encouraging disadvantaged students into university through financial aid and other widening participation strategies. Indeed, the Office for Students has recently set ambitious new targets to encourage universities to widen access. But is simply getting poor students into university enough? Our new research project, funded by the Nuffield foundation*, suggests that we need to pay much more attention to the types of universities and subjects that disadvantaged students enrol in, if we really want to improve their life chances.

As a team (along with co-authors Stuart Campbell (UCL Institute of Education), and Richard Murphy from University of Texas at Austin), examine the quality match between students and the courses they attend, using data on a cohort of students who left school and enrolled in university in 2008. We are interested in whether certain groups (e.g. disadvantaged students) are more likely to undermatch, by attending courses that are less selective than might be expected given their A-level grades. We also examine whether certain types of students overmatch – i.e. attend courses that are more selective than might be expected given their grades.

We examine this phenomenon of mismatch along two dimensions of course ‘quality’. First, we consider a student to be well matched to their course if they have similar A level scores to others on the course (attainment match). For example, a high-attaining student would be well matched if they attend a course with equally high attaining students. They would be under-matched if they attend a course where their fellow students have lower grades than they do (suggesting they could have attended a more academically prestigious course), and over-matched if they attend a course where the other students on their course have higher grades than they do.

Second, we rank courses based on the average earnings of their graduates 5 years later, and consider a student to be well matched if that course has a similar ranking to their own individual ranking by attainment (earnings match).  For example, a high attaining student would be well-matched if they attend a course with high earnings potential, and would be under-matched if they are high attaining, but their course has low average earnings.

We find a significant amount of mismatch in the English system, with around 15-23% of students under-matching and a similar proportion over-matching. Importantly, we find that students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds are more likely to undermatch than those from rich backgrounds. Comparing low and high SES students at every level of attainment, disadvantaged students attend less academically prestigious courses, and courses with lower earnings potential, than those from high SES backgrounds. So these students have the same A-level attainment, but are attending lower ‘quality’ courses. This has obvious implications for equity, and for equalising opportunities.

But economic disadvantage is not the only dimension of inequality we study. Examining mismatch by gender, we find that female students attend courses that are just as academically selective as male students (attainment match), but they attend courses which have lower future average earnings than men, comparing students with the same A level attainment. This has important implications for equity and for the gender pay gap.

So what should policy makers do? We examine three important factors which might drive this mismatch in an attempt to work out potential policy solutions. First, we consider the choice of subject studied at degree level, comparing students of similar academic attainment and studying the same degree subject, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students remains. This tells us that low SES students are studying at lower ‘quality’ institutions relative to high SES students, rather than choosing lower ‘quality’ subjects for their courses.

What about the role of geography? It is well known that low SES students are more likely to attend universities close to home, but does this drive them to choose a less selective institution? If we just consider the group of students living close to home, we still see differences in the institutions that disadvantaged students attend compared to more advantaged students. High attaining low SES students tend to enrol in post 1992 institutions near home, whereas high attaining high SES students are more likely to attend a nearby Russell Group university. There may therefore be scope for some outreach work for high ranking universities to attract local disadvantaged students. Interestingly, those low SES students who move further away from home to attend university appear to be as well-matched as similar attaining high SES students.

Our third factor of interest is school attended, which we find accounts for the majority of mismatch among low SES students. The implication is that factors correlated with high school such as peers, school resources, information, advice and guidance (IAG) at school, and sorting into different types of schools, play an important role in student match. Unpicking what it is that is driving this important schools channel is an important step for future research.

Turning to our gender gap in earnings mismatch, we find no role for distance to university or schools attended. But we find a very important role for degree subject studied. The fact that women attend courses with lower future average earnings than men is largely driven by the subjects that women are studying, rather than the institutions they attend. For example a high attaining male student might choose a subject such as engineering, which is typically high returns, whereas a high attaining female student might choose a subject such as English or History, commanding a lower average salary.

So what can we do? The evidence suggests that an intervention that may help to reduce SES and gender gaps in match would be to improve the level and quality of information available to under-matched students, for example on the attainment profile of students on each course, and labour market returns.

Some recent studies have investigated the importance of providing information to low SES students specifically to improve match (Dynarski et al, 2018, Sanders et al., 2018). Our results highlight that it may also be beneficial to target women in a similar way, providing information on potential earnings associated with both institution and field of study. However, as with most studies of mismatch, we have no information on the preferences of students. Women may be well-informed on the earnings potential of subjects, but simply prefer not to study them. Similarly, it may be the case that low SES students prefer to attend less academically challenging institutions even when their attainment levels suggest they are academically prepared. This could be down to perceptions about institutions not being a good fit for them. Our finding on geography suggests that university widening participation units could do some important outreach work in these cases to challenge perceptions (Sanders et al., 2018).

read more in our working paper:

this blog first appeared on wonkhe, on 5th December 2019

*The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social wellbeing in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project (172585), but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at

Grade prediction system means the brightest, poorest students can miss out on top university places

By Gill Wyness

With UK tuition fees now among the highest in the world, but benefits from having a degree remaining substantial, choosing the right university has never been more important for young people. The government has tried to make this easier by offering more and more information not just on the university experience but on the quality of the institution and even the potential wage return students could reap.

Despite all these efforts to make the decision about where to apply as informed as possible, one issue remains: students still apply to university based on their predicted rather than actual qualifications. And these predictions are not always accurate.

Using information on university applicants’ actual and predicted grades and their university attended, obtained from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), I find only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grades that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best 3 A-levels.

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Higher education, career opportunities, and intergenerational inequality

by Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness

For the most part, when we think about social mobility, our concerns are with those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder; people “for whom life is a struggle and who work all hours to keep their heads above water” as Prime Minster Theresa May put it in her most recent speech on the matter. One of the issues often considered is how likely are those from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter into higher education. This is often viewed as the direct route to the top jobs in the UK where a degree is almost always a pre-requisite now. The hope is that, if society is meritocratic, rewarding those for effort and achievement rather than family background, if we get more disadvantaged kids into higher education then this will equalise their chances of reaching the top jobs. Unfortunately, in the UK, this does not seem to be the case. Recent research by ourselves, and colleagues from Cambridge, Bath and Warwick university has revealed that higher education is not the leveller we might hope it to be, and that socio-economic differences persist throughout higher education and into the graduate labour market, even comparing those with similar educational attainment.

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Degrees benefit society – even when students don’t get ‘graduate jobs’

by Francis Green and Golo Henseke

Every few weeks, a new report emerges raising concerns about the graduate labour market in Britain.

Only recently in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) came out with a plea for a halt to the expansion drive in higher education. Earlier in the summer, an Institute for Fiscal Studies report, while noting that the graduate earnings premium had been steady (or increasing, even) for many years, warned that the future might not be so bright.

Indeed, there seems to be growing concern that, maybe, higher education has expanded to the limit over the past 20 years and can take no more. So, should governments be worried about the underemployment of graduates – that is, graduates doing supposedly non-graduate jobs?

Our short answer to this question is: “Yes, but…” Let us explain why.

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Widening participation in HE: when aspirations are not enough

By Lucia Rizzica (Bank of Italy)

In the UK, as in most other developed countries, the substantial increase in participation in higher education observed during the past three decades, has been accompanied by an increase in inequality in access. Indeed, the rate of participation of those coming from more affluent families grew much more than that of those coming from poorer backgrounds. Coupled with the substantial raise in the returns to higher education, this generated a significant exacerbation of within generation inequality.

Since the late 90s’ the UK has been trying to reverse this trend not just through the institution of loans and grants for students from low income families, but also through action aimed at removing some relevant non-financial barriers, namely aspirational ones. The Widening Participation (WP) policy, started in 1998, today receives over 350 million pounds per year of public funds to inspire youths from low socio economic background to go to university. My recent study evaluates the effectiveness of this policy among students who were in high school between 2004 and 2008.

My findings show that the WP policy succeeded in raising the aspirations of students eligible for the programme, and also positively impacted their likeliness to stay on at school. But this did not translate into an increase in college enrollment, except for those from the most affluent families.

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