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UCAS figures – comparing figures for disadvantaged students from Scotland and the rest of the UK

September 4, 2015

There’s been a bit of argument recently about the significance of much lower levels of participation recorded for Scotland by UCAS for 18 year olds from poorer backgrounds, compared to the rest of the UK.

The Scottish Conservatives noted recently that the proportion of 18 year olds getting a place through UCAS from the most deprived areas (9.7% at the point reported) was lower than the equivalent figure for England (17%). This was an accurate report of UCAS data (most recent set here).

However, as noted by the Scottish Government among others in response, this overlooks the significant numbers undertaking HE in an FE college, not covered by UCAS.

This is not a new debate.  Opposition politicians have been using differences in these figures to beat up Scottish administrations since well before 2007 and the government line in response has been in use for as long. It is technically right, but deserves some unpicking.

The problem is that there is rather less sub-degree HE in the non-Scottish parts of the UK than in Scotland (see Figure 1, page 4 here), but most of what there is appears to be recruited through UCAS; meanwhile in Scotland  there’s a much larger amount of HE provided in FE colleges, pretty much all at sub-degree level, which is not recruited through UCAS at all (there’s also some sub-degree provision in Scottish universities, not least UHI).  Indeed, it’s the HE provided in colleges which gives Scotland the edge in overall participation rates: participation in university-level HE is pretty similar in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK (same link as before: around one-quarter of under-21s in both Scotland and England are on degree-level courses).  There’s around one young entrant to college-level HE for every two to an HEI (Table N here).

So to use UCAS data to compare the percentage of disadvantaged young people recruited onto degree-level courses you ought to take a little bit off both sets of figures,  as in both nations whatever sub-degree provision  is recruited through UCAS is likely to be biased towards the most disadvantaged.  How much should be deducted unfortunately would be a complete guess from the available data.  But there is still likely to be a large gap between the two nations for disadvantaged students – there just isn’t enough sub-degree level activity in England to make that much difference.

However, to compare the percentage of disadvantaged young people in any form of HE you need to adjust the Scottish figure upwards significantly. The gap would probably disappear completely – Scotland might even do better than England.

Sub-degree HE in FE colleges is a very important part of the Scottish system.  However, we also know that HN-level qualifications by themselves do not confer such a large earnings advantage (they do not open the door to the same range of well-paid professions, for example).  At the most technical level, an HN and a degree are not of equal weight in educational terms – see the Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework.  But perhaps more telling is the behaviour of students (and parents and schools) themselves.  Young people from more privileged backgrounds vote with their feet.

HE in FE has a much stronger social bias towards students from more disadvantaged backgrounds than university-level HE (see table 25 here).   Unsurprisingly, the  gap in the UCAS data – and the implied influenced of HE in colleges – reduces as social advantage rises: see table (from 28 August UCAS data here).

England Scotland England as a % Scotland
POLAR3 Q1 18.1 10 181%
POLAR3 Q2 24.8 14.2 175%
POLAR3 Q3 30.2 18.6 162%
POLAR3 Q4 36 23.4 154%
POLAR3 Q5 44.9 35.2 128%

As long as there’s a strong social divide in who does what, it’ll be an indication that one path is more valued, whether for intellectual, social or economic reasons.

The distinction between types of HE is reflected too in the political rhetoric.  The First Minister has spoken of giving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds equal access specifically to university and this is reflected in the remit of the current Commission on Widening Access, which is unlikely to be accidental.

To come back to the UCAS figures, it’s true the absolute numbers can’t be compared directly, particularly when HE in general is the issue: but they still suggest different relative levels of access to the most highly-valued parts of the HE system in different parts of the UK.   The underlying issue is who gets access to what sort of higher education and how much that matters. As so often in cross-UK comparisons, the issue is how far (and when) it makes sense to regard all HE as equal.

In valuing HNs, as we should, it could be easy to slip into assuming that as long as more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can get onto those courses, the access box has been sufficiently ticked. That’s not far from assuming that all the important social mobility was achieved after the Robbins report and the 1990’s university expansion and there’s not really that much untapped degree-level potential left in the children of the remaining non-graduates – and, returning to the UCAS figures, that this is particularly true in Scotland.  That would be a pleasantly comfortable assumption for those whose families are already on the more privileged side of the divide: but it’s not so helpful for everyone else.








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