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This briefing paper looks at equality in undergraduate education in England. It summarises the latest data from the Department for Education (DfE), the Office for Students (OfS), and UCAS on access and outcomes before looking at Government policy, the role of the OfS, and the actions and responsibilities of universities.

The classification of groups based on ethnicity, gender, disability, and socio-economic status here are based on the categories used by the DfE, the OfS, and UCAS.

Patterns in access and educational outcomes


Women are much more likely to go to university than men and have been for many years. They are also more likely to complete their studies and gain a first or upper second-class degree. However, after graduation, men are more likely to be in ‘highly skilled’ employment or further study just after graduation. Male graduate average earnings are around 9% higher than female earnings one year after graduation. This earnings gap grows substantially over their early careers and reaches 31% ten years after graduation.


White pupils are less likely than any other broad ethnic group to go to higher education. Pupils from Chinese, Indian, and Black African backgrounds have the highest entry rates. Black Caribbean pupils have particularly low entry rates to more prestigious universities.

Black students are more likely to drop out from higher education than other ethnic groups and least likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree. In contrast, White students are least likely to drop out and most likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree.

White graduates have the highest employment rates of any ethnic group. Chinese, Black and graduates from ‘Other’ ethnic groups have the lowest. Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean graduates earn the least, whereas Chinese, Indian and Mixed White and Asian graduates earn the most.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said subject choice is important when looking at differences in graduate earnings by ethnic group. It said Asian students tend to choose “higher-return subjects than their Black and White peers.”


Students with reported disabilities are more likely to drop out from higher education and less likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree. Those who reported a mental health disability have the highest drop-out rates.

Disabled students are also less likely to be in highly skilled employment or higher study soon after completing their first degree. Students who reported a ‘social and communication’ disability (such as Autistic Spectrum Disorder) have particularly low rates on this measure.

Socio-economic status

Pupils eligible for free school meals are much less likely than other pupils to go into higher education, particularly to more prestigious universities. They are also almost twice as likely to drop out before the start of their second year in higher education. Graduates who were eligible for free school meals are slightly less likely to be in employment or further study and they earn around 10% less than other graduates.

There is a very clear pattern showing students from areas with higher levels of deprivation are more likely to drop out of university. There are also clear links between deprivation and achievement of first or upper second-class degrees and progression to highly skilled employment or higher study. Students from areas with higher deprivation levels have poorer outcomes than those from areas with low deprivation.

Analysis of entry rates shows a clear link between current and past levels of higher education in the area the pupil comes from. The entry rate in the top POLAR group (‘Participation of Local Areas’ group – the areas with the highest levels of participation in the past) is more than twice that in the lowest one. There are also higher levels of drop out and poorer attainment among those from the lower POLAR areas. These students, however, have slightly higher levels of employment and/or further study, than those from higher POLAR areas. However, this does not continue to average salaries, which are 16-18% higher in the top POLAR group than in the lowest one at both one year and ten years after graduation.

IFS research highlights the advantages those from a particularly privileged social group have and its impact on their earnings: “…elite social networks are likely to be important in explaining the exceptional returns of some men who went to private schools.”

Intersectional data

Intersectional analysis shows that White males eligible for free school meals are less likely to go to higher education than any other groups when analysed by gender, free school meal eligibility, and broad ethnic groups. White males who were not eligible for free meals (and hence from more advantaged backgrounds) are also less likely than average to go to higher education.

Drop-out rates are higher among minority ethnic groups (combined) than for White students and this does not change based on the level of deprivation in the local areas they come from. The gap in drop-out rates between male and female students was greater for those from more deprived areas, with male students from more deprived areas more likely to drop out.

White students from the lowest POLAR groups have a higher level of attainment at university than students from minority ethnic groups. This is true even for those from the top three POLAR groups (combined). The gap between male and female students was greater for those from less deprived areas.

IFS analysis of earnings data concluded:

…among students from different socio-economic or ethnic groups but with the same prior attainment and other background characteristics, university education can help level the playing field in the labour market. However, substantial unexplained differences remain even for graduates. In particular, graduate men from all ethnic minority groups have lower earnings than male White British graduates even after controlling for prior attainment and a host of other background characteristics.

Barriers to equal access, participation, and outcomes

Several factors have been identified as barriers to greater equality in higher education for students from different backgrounds. These include:

  • The prior attainment of students.
  • Insufficient advice and support both before and during university.
  • Financial concerns that deter young people from applying and can have a detrimental impact on experiences of higher education.
  • The prevalence of sexual and racial harassment on campus.

Policy approaches

The Government, the OfS, and individual higher education providers (HEPs) all play a role in improving access, participation, and outcomes for students.

The Government

The Government established the Office for Students (OfS) in 2018 as the regulator of higher education in England. It inherited the responsibility for promoting fair access to higher education that had previously fallen to the Office for Fair Access (OfFA).

In November 2021, the Government announced a “new approach” to access and participation (PDF), which was to include a focus on outcomes for students, universities working with schools and colleges to raise educational standards, and universities increasing the proportion of students taking apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications.

The Government sets out its priorities for the OfS in an annual letter. This informs the levels of funding it sets for the Student Premium, the Disabled Student Premium, and the Uni Connect programme, which aim to support student access and success.

£276 million in Student Premium and Disabled Student Premium funding was made available for the 2022/23 academic year, including a “one-off reallocation” of £15 million in funding. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has allowed providers to divert this funding to other areas, such as student hardshp and mental health services.

The Office for Students

The Office for Students (OfS) is responsible for ensuring that students, whatever their background, are supported to succeed in and progress from higher education.

On 8 February 2022, the OfS’s Director for Fair Access and Participation, John Blake, set out the OfS’ priorities for the next four years. These priorities reflect the Government’s new approach to access and participation and include:

  • Higher education providers developing, enhancing, and expanding partnerships with schools and other local and national organisations, to help raise the pre-16 attainment of young people from underrepresented groups across England.
  • Providers developing more diverse pathways into and through higher education through expansion of flexible Level 4 and 5 courses and degree apprenticeships.
  • Providers ensuring access to higher education for students from underrepresented groups leads to successful participation on high quality courses and good graduate outcomes.

In 2018, the OfS introduced Access and Participation Plans (A&P Plans) as a condition for higher education providers in England that want to charge higher level tuition fees. A&P Plans set out the actions providers are taking to increase access to, success in, and progression from higher education by students from disadvantaged and under-represented groups.

Planned spending on A&P Plans from 2020/21 to 2024/25 is to increase from just over £550 million to around £565 million. Around 60 per cent of this is for financial support (mainly bursaries and scholarships), and the remainder is for outreach activity aimed at increasing access among disadvantaged groups.

The OfS also funds programmes including Uni Connect and Addressing Barriers to Student Success (ABSS).

Higher education providers

Access and Participation Plans show higher education providers undertake a range of activities to increase representation, including creating partnerships with local schools and colleges, running mentoring and ambassador schemes, and facilitating summer schools.

Many providers use contextual admissions data when making offers to applicants, in an attempt to widen participation among disadvantaged groups. This process involves considering an individual’s socioeconomic background and their school performance data, among other things, rather than relying solely on their results in exams and coursework.

Providers have also looked to improve the attainment and future success of disadvantaged students. Measures include making reasonable adjustments to ensure disabled students can fully participate in higher education and using careers services to reduce differential employment outcomes for individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds and those with low-socio-economic status.

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