A major study of higher education trends over the past 25 years reveals persistent access gaps for disadvantaged students, particularly at the most selective universities.

The research, using a unique dataset compiled by dataHE for the Sutton Trust, shows that despite huge expansion of higher education, the progress that has been made in closing access gaps between state and independent school pupils has not translated into significantly more equal representation of young people from less advantaged homes.

The report shows that while we have more young people accessing higher education than ever, an escalating education ‘arms race’ has meant that narrowing the gaps in access to the most selective universities has been stubbornly slow.

This research consists of a summary report authored by Dr Rebecca Montacute and Carl Cullinane, as well as original analysis slides produced by dataHE which are available here.


In 2017, for the first time more than half of young people went to university by age 30.


The proportion of Black young people going onto Higher Education, the least likely group to attend in 2006.


The proportion of university attendees coming from state schools in 2020.

Key Findings
  • Over the last 25 years there has been a substantial increase in the number of young people going to university, with 50% of young people going on to higher education by age 30 for the first time in 2017.
  • Proportional gaps in access to university by under-represented neighbourhoods (POLAR) have narrowed over that time, though the gap itself remains significant.
  • Russell Group share of disadvantaged and low participation area students has declined since 1997 compared to the rest of the sector.
  • 4,700 state school students and 1,000 students from areas of the country with low historic participation ‘missing’ from 30 most selective universities each year – these students have the required grades but don’t get places.
  • Students from London are considerably more likely both to apply and to go on to attend higher education, with the rest of the country falling further behind each year.
  • Male students have fallen further behind female students and entry rates for White young people have lagged behind other ethnic groups.
  • These stubborn gaps persist despite considerable efforts from universities, government and the third sector to improve access rates. This emphasises the scale of the challenge in tackling access gaps in an environment with substantial social inequalities, and increasing demand for a limited resource (places at the most prestigious universities).
  • Widening participation efforts have likely prevented POLAR gaps from growing further. Groups promoting widening access in some senses have been ‘running to stand still’. In contrast, where access efforts have had less focus, for example on region, ethnicity or gender, gaps have widened.
  • Tackling the access gap is likely to become more, rather than less challenging in the medium term, as a population bulge goes through the higher education system. Universities should make greater use of contextual offers, taking into account the wider circumstances of applicants when accessing their potential. It is also vital that universities are properly monitored and held to account on their progress in widening participation.
  • Findings here show the importance of looking at how several different aspects of someone’s background and identity can impact on their likelihood of going onto university, and that it is important to look at these factors in combination, as well as overall trends for each group.
  • In the longer-term, we cannot tackle access issues at university level without also tackling the education attainment gap earlier on in a young person’s journey. This should start from the early years onwards, with efforts made at every part of the education system to ensure all young people can fulfil their potential.