Students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups more likely to drop out of university, research shows

The figures should ‘concern us all,’ the higher education regulator warns

Manchester University

The gap in university completion rates between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers, has increased to record levels, new data shows.

The figures, published by the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, show that of students who commenced higher education in 2017 – 18, 82.5 percent of full-time undergraduates that had been eligible for free schools, completed their course. This compared with 90.8 percent of their peers from more privileged backgrounds.

The 8.3 percentage gap is almost double to what is was five years ago, and marks the highest difference since records that are comparable began in 2012 – 13.

Using indicators from multiple deprivation measures, the figures also show that 81.6 percent of students from the most deprived backgrounds who started their course in 2017 -18 completed it, a drop from 85.5 percent in 2012 – 13. 92.2 percent of the most advantaged cohort of students finished their degree, down just slightly from 92.4 percent over the same period.

There was a similar contrast in under-represented groups. Black students have the lowest completion rates, while the number of white students completing their courses jumped by a record 7.8 percentage points.

John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said the data should ‘concern us all.’

“Higher education in England has historically high completion rates, but this data shows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups have been much more likely to drop out than their more advantaged peers.

“These gaps are significant and, in some cases, are growing,” said Blake.

The OfS director for fair access and participation said that the data reinforces the ‘importance of quality underpinning equality of opportunity.’

“When we consulted on our new quality conditions, we heard, time and again, that we should be cautious about implementing expectations for student outcomes because those universities and colleges with weaker outcomes often had high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Blake.

He described suggestions that disadvantaged students should be prepared to accept poor quality courses as a “dangerous and patronising idea,” which can have a “profound impact on their confidence, their finances and their future plans.”

“Fundamentally, universities and colleges cannot sit back and think ‘job done’ when students from disadvantaged backgrounds get into higher education,” said Blake.

The figures follow a separate study, published in early March, which found that a quarter of students are regularly going without food and other essentials. The study by the Russell Group, a self-selected association of twenty-four public research universities in the UK, found that one in five students at Russell Group universities are considering dropping out because of the cost of living crisis, and a quarter are regularly going without food and other essentials. It found that the proportion of students who were considering dropping out increased to more than three in 10 among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged, and that the devastating impact of soaring prices are having an impact on all but the richest students.

The researchers said that unless urgent action is taken, the damage created by the cost of living crisis could lead to universities being “only open to the most privileged” – undoing decades of progress on broadening higher education access.

The Russell Group is calling on the government to consider reintroducing maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students and to review the parental threshold for maximum loan support, which has been frozen since 2008.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

Comments are closed.