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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Widening participation in HE: why it’s important to focus on ‘first generation’ students

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 November 2020

Anna Adamecz-Völgyi, Morag Henderson, and Nikki Shure.

why IOE and UCL are merging

As this new and unusual academic year starts taking shape, thousands of students are trying to settle into their new lives at university. For some students, going to university will seem like the obvious, normal thing to do. Others, especially those who are the first in their families to attend higher education, may be stepping into less comfortable new world.

A plethora of research shows that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to go to university and that if they go, they end up at lower ranked institutions, studying “lower value” courses than their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. At the same time, universities are actively engaging in the “Widening Participation (WP) agenda”, attempting to increase the diversity of their student body. But in order to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, universities first need to be able to identify who they are.

Our research will help them pinpoint (more…)

When students’ attainment is mismatched with their university course, life chances are affected

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 December 2019

Gill Wyness and Lindsey Macmillan.

Higher education has long been thought of as a tool to equalise opportunities, with governments around the world spending billions per year on encouraging disadvantaged students into university through financial aid and other widening participation strategies.

Indeed, the Office for Students has recently set ambitious new targets to encourage universities to widen access. But is simply getting poor students into university enough? Our research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, suggests that we need to pay much more attention to the types of universities and subjects that disadvantaged students enrol in, if we really want to improve their life chances.


Higher Education Policy Institute report on access: the debate rages on

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 January 2019

Lindsey Macmillan, Matt Dickson, Simon Burgess.
We appreciate the response by Iain Mansfield on WonkHE to the widespread criticism of his paper on selective schooling. However, the points we made about the dataset used and the methods employed remain.
A major critique that has yet to be answered is the inappropriate comparisons made when analysing progression to HE. The key part of the argument about the effectiveness of selective schools is hinged on analysis that is far too simple to support the strong statements made. Mansfield returns to the 39% vs 23% rates of progression from selective compared to non-selective areas in his response. The fact that he again attributes these large differences in progression rates directly to the schooling systems, rather than other factors involved that muddy the waters, is a basic stats mistake. The comparison group of all non-selective areas is wrong. If instead the (more…)

How and why do young people change their expectations of going to university?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 December 2013

Jake Anders

It is now taken as a given that an ‘aspirations deficit’ is not the reason so many fewer young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds go to university. This assumption is based on the fact that at age 14 the proportion of young people from less advantaged backgrounds who think they are likely to get into university is much higher than the proportion who will ultimately end up going.

However, just as important is what happens over the next few years. Many young people’s expectations of applying to university change during their adolescent years. There are large falls in the proportion who think they are likely to do so and pre-existing inequalities in expectations grow further.

At the same time, we observe a ‘hardening’ in expectations, as individuals tend to move from saying they are ‘fairly likely’ to apply to university, to ‘very likely’; or – on the flip side – from saying they are ‘not very likely’ to reporting that they are ‘not at all likely’ to apply. Being on the wrong side of this hardening makes it far less likely that potentially qualified young people will apply to university.

Understanding what is associated with these changes may be key to sustaining high expectations, encouraging a wider cross section of university applicants, and hence widening access to university. So, what seems to explain the large changes we see?

Unsurprisingly, some change is explained with the young people’s prior attainment, as individuals with lower performance in national tests at age 11 revise their expectations downwards during their adolescent years. Interestingly, while individuals’ GCSE performance five years later, at the end of compulsory education, is also correlated with changes, there is not evidence that it suddenly causes young people to update their future plans.   This is likely because GCSE results do not, for most people, come as a surprise: they are partly anticipated and so changes in expectations are smoothed over time.

This transition at the end of compulsory education is also important for another reason. Almost all the decline in expectations we observe is among those who leave education at this point, or, to a lesser extent, one year later. Among those still in education at age 18, there is no decline in average levels of expectation over the teenage years. This suggests that post-16 education is largely seen as a gateway to higher education, rather than as an aspiration in its own right.

Also of interest is whether other individual characteristics have an effect above and beyond differences in attainment. We find that parental socioeconomic status does indeed seem to have an additional impact, although it is heartening to note that it explains less of the differences in expectations than does attainment at age 11 (however, we should remember that this too is socially graded).

We also find that schools are very important for sustaining high expectations and raising low ones during this period.  A tenth of the variation in maintaining expectations is explained by schools, and this rises to as much as a quarter when it comes to raising expectations.

Obviously there are many reasons why schools matter so much, not all of which will be within a school’s control (such as any association between family background and school admissions).  Nevertheless, our findings suggest that teachers have a key role to play in keeping bright teenagers from less advantaged households on the track towards university.

Young people’s hopes of applying to university start out high. However, sustaining them, where appropriate, is still too heavily associated with their family background. Without breaking this link it is difficult to see how we can go on also to break the link between socioeconomic status and university attendance.

“Teenagers’ expectations of applying to university: how do they change?” by Jake Anders and John Micklewright is published as a Department of Quantitative Social Science Working Paper available from the Institute of Education, University of London website (pdf, 0.9mb).