Students from the most advantaged areas are nearly 10 times more likely to take up a place at a top university than those from the most disadvantaged areas, according to a new report by the Independent Commission on Fees.

The continuing disparity between students from different backgrounds is revealed as an Ipsos MORI poll for the Sutton Trust on behalf of the Commission shows that just over half of adults aged 16-75 in England (53%) support the idea of students from lower income families being charged a lower university tuition fee than other students.  Just one in four (25%) oppose students from lower income families being charged a lower tuition fee.

Analysis of the latest UCAS data shows more needs to be done to narrow the persistent gap in application and entry rates between advantaged and disadvantaged students.  In England in 2010, 9.8 times more advantaged students than disadvantaged students took up places at the 13 most selective universities. In 2013 this ratio remains 9.5 times.

Across all universities, students who are not eligible for Free School Meals remain more than twice as likely as those eligible to apply for university.  However, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students going into higher education has narrowed from 30.5% in 2010 to 29.8% in 2013.

Today’s report shows that the proportion of UK school-leavers entering university has recovered to above pre-2012 levels. Entry rates for English 18 year olds were 2.9% higher (at 30.3%) in 2013 than their 2010 levels. There were also increases in the proportions of 18 year olds going to university from Scotland (0.2%), Wales (1.8%), and Northern Ireland (2.5%).

 However, the picture for mature students and those studying part-time is much bleaker. The number of applications by mature students recovered slightly in 2014 but remains substantially lower than pre-2012 levels, particularly in England. In 2014, the numbers of English residents aged 20-24 and 25+ applying to university were 8% and 11% below their 2010 levels. Mature student numbers also remain substantially depressed in terms of the take up of university places with 18% fewer people aged 25+ taking up places in 2013 compared to 2010.

The latest HESA data on enrolments show that the year of the fees increase saw particularly large reductions in the number of mature students taking part-time courses. Over 100,000 fewer students over the age of 25 started part-time higher education courses in 2012/13 than did in 2009/10 – a reduction of 43%. This was part of a more general decline in part-time higher education, with 41% fewer part-time enrolments overall in 2012/13 than in 2009/10

The gender gap in university applications previously highlighted by the Commission continues to increase and appears to be matched by a widening gap in university entry rates. The gap is particularly large for disadvantaged students, indicating that disadvantaged boys are particularly under-represented in university applications and enrolments.

Will Hutton, chair of the Independent Commission on Fees, said today;

“Whilst we welcome the recovery in the proportion of 18 year olds taking up places at university after the introduction of higher fees in 2012, serious gaps in access to university remain. Our research shows that advantaged students are nearly 10 times more likely to attend a top university than their disadvantaged peers. Young men from disadvantaged areas are particularly badly affected and remain under-represented in applications to all universities.

“Mature student numbers also appear to be disproportionately affected by the student fee changes with their numbers remaining below 2010 levels. The number of students on part-time courses has fallen dramatically. Since many mature and part-time students come from less advantaged backgrounds this is an issue we must address if we are to ensure fair access to university for all.”


  1. The Independent Commission on Fees was set up by the Sutton Trust in January 2012 and is committed to monitoring the impact of increased university fees in England. The five members of the panel are: Will Hutton (Chair), Principal of Hertford College, Oxford University, and Chair of the Big Innovation Centre; Tanith Dodge, HR director at Marks & Spencer; Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation; Stephen Machin, Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics; and Libby Purves, writer and radio broadcaster.
  2. The Commission is grateful to the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for their cooperation in helping with the Commission’s work. This report extends our previous findings by examining applications in the 2014 cycle and by adding an analysis of acceptances and entry rates in the 2013 cycle. We further include an analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) on students actually enrolled on UK higher education courses (including those who have not applied through the UCAS route).
  3. The POLAR (Participation of Local Areas) measure of disadvantage is used for the majority of analysis in this report. This measure classifies applicants on the basis of the university participation rate of their home area. The areas (census sub-wards) are classified into quintiles, with the lowest quintile being the most disadvantaged (i.e. lowest participation). The report uses the ST13 and ST30 classification of selective universities. See here for a full list of universities included.
  4. Ipsos MORI surveyed a total of 1,728 adults aged 16-75 in England from 13th – 17th June 2014 via its Online iOmnibus Survey. The survey data were weighted by age, gender, region, social grade, working status and main shopper to the known profile of the English population aged 16-75.
  5. The full report is available here.

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