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Higher university offer rates for disadvantaged teenagers ‘make system fairer’

The most disadvantaged students have effectively been put first in offer-making, Ucas said (Chris Radburn/PA)
The most disadvantaged students have effectively been put first in offer-making, Ucas said (Chris Radburn/PA)

Using data on a student’s background to give university places is about making “the existing system fairer”, a social mobility charity said, as figures showed offer rates are higher this year for pupils from areas with the lowest proportion of progression to higher education.

Offer rates in these areas for UK 18-year-olds are at 74.5%, compared with 73.0% in areas with the highest proportion of young people moving on to higher education, according to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).

Ucas has also taken into account data on free school meals – an indicator of disadvantage – in offers, for the first time this year.

As students returned to sitting A-level exams for the first time since the pandemic, Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said “the most disadvantaged students have effectively been put first” this year, “so that offer-making rate has dropped less proportionately for those disadvantaged students as opposed to advantaged students”.

Exam grades are expected to drop overall compared with last year, when students were teacher-assessed, and it is thought likely to be one of the most competitive years for university places.

Ms Marchant said further so-called data points introduced for 2023 university applicants will go towards “widening participation”.

They are expected to include factors such as being a carer, having parenting responsibilities, or whether the person is a refugee or asylum seeker.

In 2021 offer rates were also higher for UK 18-year-olds in Q1, the fifth of areas with the lowest proportion of progression to higher education, at 78.2%, compared with 77.9% for Q5, areas with the highest proportion of progression to higher education.

In 2019 the offer rates were 77.9%  for Q1 and 80.3% for Q5.

This year’s offer rate figures led to claims of “social engineering” in favour of students from disadvantaged areas.

This was rejected by Dr Rebecca Montacute, senior research and policy manager at the Sutton Trust, a social mobility charity.

She told the PA news agency: “To me, that implies that the situation we have at the moment, where people from better-off backgrounds are over-represented, especially at the most elite institutions, is representative of potential within the population.

“It isn’t, it’s created by our society.

“We’re going from a point of trying to take into account that that is already happening, and giving people a fair shot to fulfil their potential within that system.

“So to me, that’s what contextual admissions are about. It’s trying to make the existing system fairer.”

Dr Montacute said there remain many more offers “for people from Q5 still, and the gap is still considerable between them and lowest participation area (Q1)”.

She said: “There aren’t loads and loads of young people from higher participation areas who are suddenly not going to university – there are still huge numbers from those areas attending – they’re much more likely still than people from lower participation areas to get offers for university, largely because more of them apply to start with.”

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “A record number of 18-year-olds are holding a firm offer this year, meaning more applicants are in a prime position to secure a preferred course than ever before.

“Securing a place at university should be about talent and ability, not background, and the whole sector will be working hard on results day so pupils from every walk of life can progress to the next stage of their education.”