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.
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.
By Vikki Boliver (University of Durham)
More than half a dozen academic studies have found that university applicants from ethnic minority and state school backgrounds are less likely to be offered places than comparably qualified white and privately educated peers (see Taylor 1992; Shiner and Modood 2002; Zimdars, Sullivan and Heath 2009; Boliver 2004; Boliver 2013; Boliver 2015; and Noden, Shiner and Modood 2014. The latest study indicates that offer rates from Russell Group universities are 3 to 16 percentage points lower for British ethnic minority applicants than for white British applicants, even after controlling for differences in grades and the possession of so-called ‘facilitating subjects’ at A-level. The same study also shows that offer rates from other ‘Old’ and ‘New’ universities are 3 to 4 percentage points lower for some ethnic minority groups relative to the white group after A-level attainment has been taken into account. There is clearly an urgent need to understand what causes these disparities in university admissions chances, but access to the individual-level data needed to do this kind of research is being closed down.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) decided recently that it will only supply aggregated applications and admissions data to academic researchers. This is surely unacceptable.
Last year an article in the Guardian newspaper described significant disparities in the success rates of white and non-white applicants to the University of Oxford, even among students who received top grades at A-level. The article reported that, in 2010-11, offer rates were around 1.5 times higher for white applicants than for ethnic minority applicants with the same grades, and up to twice as high in relation to Oxford’s two most oversubscribed subjects, Medicine, and Economics and Management. This pattern was found to hold even for students with 3+ A* grades at A-level. Continue reading →
Mass participation in higher education has altered the typical path followed by university graduates. The norm used to be that after obtaining an undergraduate degree, people would finish their studies and enter the labour market. These days, many more students stay on to invest in postgraduate education. Indeed, by 2009 just over 10% of the workforce in Britain and the United States – and more than a third of all graduates – had a postgraduate qualification.
It is now widely understood that despite rapidly growing numbers of university-educated workers, increased relative demand for their skills has been a key driver of overall wage inequality.