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Is the gap on access to university closing faster in Scotland than the rest of the UK?

November 2, 2015

[Spoiler: not so as to be worth trying to hang an argument on, if at all.]

In an interview yesterday on The Sunday Politics, referring to university entry rates between the most and least deprived, the Cabinet Secretary Angela Constance MSP  said twice that “we are closing the gap at a faster rate than our English counterparts” (linked here). The First Minister tweeted a similar sentiment from a piece in the TES last week (more on that below).  In its search for a killer fact on access which can successfully see off questions about why it is allowing student debt to pile up disproportionately at the lowest incomes, the Scottish Government evidently feels it has found something.

Entry rates

The SG appears to be looking at the UCAS data on entry rates by background (for 18 year olds).  The most recent set of these figures runs from 2006 to 2014 and is found in tables 71 and 72 here. I’ve not tried to summarise the position year-by-year (it would make for a very unfriendly-looking table and I have yet to work out how to insert graphs here).  But taking the first and last year, here’s how it looks since 2006 (ratios and percentages derived by me from the figures) – Q1 are the 20% most deprived, Q5 the 20% least.  0.0638 means that in 2006 6.38% of 18 year olds in the 20% most deprived group went into HE through UCAS.

Scotland:

Q1

Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1 England:

Q1

Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1
2006 0.0638 0.349 5.5 0.113 0.431 3.8
2014 0.0949 0.336 3.5 0.182 0.459 2.5
% change 49% -4% -35% 61% 6% -34%

Since 2006, the gap has narrowed by 35% in Scotland and 34% in England, so Scotland has a marginal edge.  The percentage increase was actually higher for the Q1 group in England over the period, but there has also been a small increase in Q5. By contrast, Scotland’s gap has closed marginally more, but not because it has increased entry rates faster for the most disadvantaged, but because – slightly surprisingly – over the period the entry rate has dropped a little for the top 20%.

Looking only at the most recent years, since student support changes in Scotland took effect in 2013, measured from 2012 England does better than Scotland, but that is substantially because 2012 was a dip year for entry there – so I won’t use that. The percentage change below is measured just for the last year available, from 2013 to 2014.

Over the past year the entry rate rose more quickly in Scotland for Q1, but – as before – there has also been a fall in Q5 in Scotland (-3% in one year), while in England, both groups rose. The gap did close more quickly, by 14 % in Scotland as against 8% in England, but the drop in Q5 in Scotland accounted for half the difference.  It’s not something on which to hang  too much political claiming: also, at this sort of level UCAS figures can be quite volatile between years.  The next report could see Scotland pulling further ahead (in which case we will hear a lot about it, as this statistic suddenly becomes the go to access fact).  Or it might not, in which we won’t hear so much.

Q1 Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1                   Q1                          Q5 Ratio Q5:Q1
2012 0.0822 0.346 4.2 0.151 0.438 2.9
2013 0.0836 0.345 4.1 0.164 0.45 2.7
2014 0.0949 0.336 3.5 0.182 0.459 2.5
% change 2013 to 2014 0.14 -0.03 -0.14 0.11 0.02 -0.08

The TES piece and FM tweet

This post discussed a recent TES report of an analysis of access to HE in Scotland.

TES reported that:

Mr Forth, founder of Leeds-based company Imactivate, finds that the chances of pupils from Scotland’s more deprived areas going to university have more than doubled in the past 10 years.

He concludes that “current criticism of [Scotland’s] higher education system is unfounded”.   …

Mr Forth highlights Ucas data showing that the proportion of 18-year-olds from Scotland’s most disadvantaged areas getting into university has risen to 15 per cent in 2014 from 7.2 per cent in 2004. But that still leaves Scotland behind Northern Ireland (25.7 per cent), England (20.7 per cent) and Wales (18.2 per cent).

“Scotland’s inequality of access does seem to be the highest of any UK nation, but over the past decade it has come down the most,” writes Mr Forth. “This looks like success, not failure, to me.””

This quote picked out by the FM in a much-favourited and retweeted tweet of the article:

“Over the past decade, it [Scotland’s inequality of access to uni] has come down the most. This looks like success”

But there’s a problem with this analysis and its reporting. The original analysis (a) was not looking at entry rates and (b) was boosted by a substantial  improvement in the figures which pre-dates the current Scottish government.

As ever, Forth makes his data source very clear and easy to identify – see here.  They are clearly for the social background gap in application rates, not for actual entry.  That has value as a measure of demand, but not actual access.  Indeed, acceptances rates for Scottish students have fallen in recent years – a higher proportion of Scottish applicants end up unplaced than in the UK as a whole.

Moreover, what gives Scotland a strong story to tell about applications over the period covered is a particularly large  in 2005 tightening of the ratio in 2005 –  this is made absolutely clear from the graph. That matters, because the issue under discussion is the impact of HE policy under the current government, which  only entered office in 2007, promising free tuition.

Just taking the numbers from 2006, in that year those in the top 20% in Scotland were 4.4 times more likely to apply through UCAS than those in the bottom 20%: by 2014 that had fallen to 2.9 times. In England the equivalent change was from 4.0 to 2.5.  So over the relevant period, both fell by 1.5, which for England was a slightly larger percentage, though not by much. The two countries are pretty much the same.

As with the material discussed in my earlier post, it is surprising that TES did not spot the type of data being used (the table is clearly headed) and the timing point,  and thus notice that the quote was over-stated in the context of a specific examination of the possible effects of free tuition on actual access.   It wasn’t perhaps the  task of TES then to go and look at the actual entry data.  But it should have been clear about what the figures it was reporting.

I have worked with this data in the past and I cover it on this site because claims about access are used so routinely to parry any criticism of the way poorer students in Scotland have been adversely affected by grant cuts. I am not however a particular expert on access data (and Tom Forth admits the same for himself). There are though people in Scotland who have spent years trying to make sense of the complex and sometimes contradictory mass of UCAS, HESA and SFC figures from across the UK: I very much hope that when journalists find interesting pieces from people who are self-professed newcomers to the statistical minefield which is  inter-country comparisons on access, they think about getting in touch with one of the people who know these numbers painfully well. Although I think Forth over-claimed for current policy from his UCAS data, those figures were not the presented  in his piece as its main focus, but to explain why he had found them an inadequate source to answer his questions properly.  They were presented by way of a quick introduction to his own detailed  analysis of participation rates as against child poverty.

Conclusion

Properly understood, the claim of the access gap narrowing fastest in Scotland between the least and most deprived can’t at present bear much political weight.  Yet the general idea that Scotland is closing the gap fasteer than other parts of the UK (especially England) will now be lodging  as a fact.   We will almost certainly hear it again and it will be hard, if not impossible, to persuade people who want to believe it, that it is not true or at least not very meaningfully so. That’s how these things work.

This post is a small attempt to prevent this new claim establishing itself as another reason to avoid discussing the impact of the Scottish Government’s decision to reduce grants and skew student debt towards the poorest.  On that we have some very unambiguous numbers.  All we need now is for Ministers to start talking about those.

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