Elite universities are failing to recruit sufficient numbers of the poorest students, according to newly-published data.
Students from the least advantaged backgrounds are significantly less likely to win a place at one of the more selective universities than their more affluent peers.
And even if they do manage to get a place, they are more likely to drop out and less likely to get a first or upper second class degree, according to the figures.
Black students are similarly disadvantaged compared with their white peers, with an achievement gap of 20% or more in almost half of England’s universities.
The figures suggest that efforts by more selective universities to broaden access have largely proved unsuccessful, and will add to pressure on the higher education sector to look for new ways to attract students from underrepresented groups.
In data described as “game-changing,” the Office for Students (OfS) has revealed figures covering student intake, drop-out rates, degree attainment and progression to employment or further study for all England’s higher education providers over a five-year period.
And the figures show that two thirds of providers had gaps in higher education access for students from the least advantaged background, with “substantial” gaps at all higher-tariff institutions, the elite universities that have more selective entry criteria.
The universities with the largest gap between richest and poorest students were Imperial College London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and University College London.
None of the most selective universities recruited more than 13% of students from the least advantaged fifth of the population.
But it was not only in access that students from disadvantaged areas were being left behind. Drop out rates and attainment rates were also lower for the poorest students, who were also less likely to go on to higher-level employment or postgraduate study.
Around 11% of students from the least advantaged areas dropped out after the first year, compared with just 6% of those from the wealthiest backgrounds. And 75% of the poorest students got what is widely considered to be a “good” degree – a first or upper second – compared with 84% of the most advantaged.
And while 69% of the most disadvantaged students went on to secure higher-level employment or post-graduate study, 75% of those at the opposite end of the wealth spectrum did so.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said the data had for the first time made it possible to compare the performance of different universities at widening access and supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds.
“The dataset is a game-changer for the way in which we hold universities to account on access and successful participation,” he said. “It provides a more transparent picture of equality of opportunity in different universities than ever before.
“Universities will be held to account for their performance, not just by the OfS but by students and the wider public, who are increasingly expecting stronger progress in this area.”
The data showed some universities were making stronger progress than others, he added, and universities now needed to focus attention on areas where they face the biggest challenges.
And as well as widening access, universities needed to look at how they supported students to achieve in their studies and to thrive in life after graduation, he said.
The data also showed that black students were less likely to get a first or upper second class degree than white students at every single higher education institution, and at almost half of universities the gap was 20% or more.
Students with disabilities were more likely to drop out, less likely to get a good degree and less likely to go on to higher level employment or postgraduate studies.
Nick Morrison – Read more on forbes.com