Five things we learned from the higher education entry figures

Bad news for the boys, good news for ethnic minority applicants.

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The latest higher education entry figures have arrived, showing a growing gender gap, the white ethnic group slipping further behind every other ethnic group and record numbers of students. Here’s what we learned.

The gender gap is huge

Perhaps the most startling finding is that 18-year-old women are now 35 per cent more likely to go to university than men, and there are 36,000 "missing" men. Both are record figures. Unless this trend changes, it could point to a future in which huge swathes of female graduates marry male non-graduates.

White students do worse than everyone else

The entry rate for the white ethnic group ticked up by 0.6 per cent this year but, because every other ethnic group improved their performance by a higher percentage, the gap between how white students perform and other ethnic groups perform has widened. In 2015, the entry rate for white students was 28 per cent, compared to 32 per cent for mixed-race students, 37 per cent for black students, 41 per cent for Asian students and 58 per cent for Chinese students. As I’ve noted before, this is an inevitable result of the terrible performance of the white working-class at school.

Foreign students are being put off

While the number of accepted students from the UK rose by 2.8 per cent, and the number of accepted students from other EU countries rose an astounding 11 per cent, the number from beyond the EU rose by a puny 1.9 per cent. This is evidence of the government’s tub-thumping about immigration (and including foreign students in the immigration figures, which they constantly aim to bring down) putting foreign students off coming to the UK. That’s unfortunate, because foreign students pay whacking fees, effectively subsidising university for British students.  

Disadvantaged students are closing the gap…

In 2006, universities gained the power to charge £3,000 a year fees. With this power came fears that disadvantaged students would be priced out of university, amplified when universities gained the power to charge £9,000 a year fees in 2012. Yet there are now more disadvantaged students than ever before in England – disadvantaged young people are 65 per cent more likely to go to university or college than in 2006. And they are increasingly going to the best universities, too, even if not yet in huge numbers. In 2006 the most advantaged fifth of students were 8.5 times more likely to go to a higher tariff university than the least advantaged. That figure has now been reduced to 6.3 times. It is a largely unacknowledged success story.

…but universities could do far more

The number of disadvantaged students at university would surely be considerably higher if universities were better at analysing what actually worked, rather than blithely throwing money at the problem. In 2015/16 English universities will spend a total of £720m on access schemes. Too few will bother to ensure this goes to where it is most needed. In spite of the availability of bursaries, the real issue is getting disadvantaged students to apply to the best universities.

“Bursaries can be valuable in enabling students to stay in university once they’ve applied,” says Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust, which has just issued a new report urging universities to research what works in access spending. “Getting them to apply in the first place is the biggest battle, which is why we support seeking to frontload more spending at an earlier age.”

That means universities should invest far more in summer schools, tutoring and mentoring. One way they could fund this is by pruning back bursary spending.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.