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New data reveals extent of access gaps in English universities

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with mental health issues are more likely to drop out and achieve lower grades

New data from the Office for Students shows 67% of English universities and other higher education providers had gaps in higher education access for young students from the least advantaged areas.

The dataset from the independent watchdog for higher education in England shows that while progress is being made, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with mental health issues still face gaps in access as well as higher drop-out rates.

There is also a significant achievement gap, with 74.6% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds being awarded a first or a 2:1 compared to 84.1% of students from the most advantaged backgrounds.

The data looks at the gaps between students from the most and least advantaged areas; white, black, Asian and minority ethnic students; and disabled and non-disabled students among other categories. It considers each university’s student intake, drop-out rates, degree attainment and progression to further study or employment for different groups of students over the last five years.

Although there has been some improvement in recent years, the access gap between students recruited from the most and least advantaged areas for Oxford University was one of the highest. In 2017-18, the gap was 54.1%, while the national average was 18.1%.

A University spokesperson said: “We welcome the Office for Students’ initiative on openness about access, complementing Oxford’s own work in recent years in sharing its admissions data widely. We are pleased to see the figures highlight our outstanding record of inspiring students to good degrees and into stimulating and rewarding careers and further study.

“The OfS figures for 2017 entry demonstrate our steady progress in attracting talented undergraduates from diverse backgrounds. This reflects the success of one of the UK’s most ambitious student outreach and support programmes and we know that our figures for 2018 entry, to be published shortly, will show further advances, but we know we have more to do and are keen to meet the challenge.

“We also welcome the OfS call for ever-greater accessibility to student places across the sector. We are exceeding our current OfS targets on this, but will shortly be announcing ambitious plans which will push us further in widening participation for all in Oxford’s outstanding education.”

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, said: “The dataset is a game changer for the way in which we hold universities to account on access and successful participation. It provides a more transparent picture of equality of opportunity in different universities than ever before.

“Universities will be held to account for their performance, not just by the OfS but by students and the wider public, who are increasingly expecting stronger progress in this area. We expect to use it to ensure that all now make significant improvements during the coming years.”

“We have set ambitious targets to reduce equality gaps during the next five years. Universities now need to focus their attention on the specific areas where they face the biggest challenges. While some universities will need to focus on improving access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the data shows that for many universities the real challenge is in ensuring these students can succeed in their studies, and thrive in life after graduation. This data will help them to do that, and to showcase their achievements.

“It will enable us to make consistent judgements of how well different universities are doing, and provide clarity to universities on how their performance will be assessed.”

For the first time, the data also shows the gaps between students with and without known mental health conditions. 86.8% of full-time students with a declared mental health condition progress into their second year of study, compared to 90.3% of full-time students with no known disability.

Yvonne Hawkins, Director of Teaching Excellence and Student Experience at OfS, said: “The data shows there are clear differences in outcomes for students who declare a mental health condition, compared to those students who have no known disability.

“Universities should look at the data closely and consider how they can continue to support students reporting mental ill health.

“Work to improve the mental health of all students is a priority for the OfS. We have made funding of up to £6 million available to drive a step-change in improving mental health, and are working with Research England to deliver further funding of up to £1.5 million to enhance mental health support for postgraduate research students.”

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