Unpicking the UCAS end of cycle report


Dr Michael Englard, our Director of Research and Policy, has been picking through the latest chapter of the UCAS end of cycle report, published today.

The latest instalment of UCAS's end of cycle report shows - at a very broad level - the most recent entry rates for young students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some quick caveats before we take a look at the numbers. The data looks at entry rates for 18 year old students, so doesn’t tell us about students who might enter Higher Education when older.

The main measure used is our old friend - the Participation of Local Areas classification. This time round, however, POLAR is dressed in a new guise. We are now, in fact, into the fourth iteration of the POLAR - helpfully known as POLAR4.

There have been longstanding debates over the limits of POLAR. The measure shows progression to Higher Education by breaking the UK into small areas - middle layer super output areas or MSOAs for the geeks - and classifying these areas into quintiles. Quintile 1 is the most disadvantaged and Quintile 5 is the most advantaged. The metric is particularly problematic in London where only 13 MSOAs are classified as Quintile 1; Ellen Austin provides an excellent overview of the dangers of using this as a single and definitive measure here.

While POLAR4 might have its problems, it should not be dismissed too casually. It's an officially recognised measure which has been used for over two decades and thus provides some material for important comparisons.

Looking at the latest POLAR data, we can see that the entry for the most disadvantaged quintile has risen very slightly by 0.4% which means that a record 19.7% of Q1 students have been accepted by UCAS to start a course in September 2018.

This small uplift shouldn't mask some large and persistent inequalities. Young people from the most advantaged areas are 2.3 times more likely to start an undergraduate course compared to their less privileged counterparts. At higher tariff institutions the gap widens considerably with young people from quintile 5 now 5.74 times more likely to study at more selective institutions than those from quintile 1.

While this report is helpful in indicating some broad patterns, it is not until January when UCAS will publish this data split by free school meals status and ethnic groups that we will be able to make more nuanced judgements.

Given this first tranche of data, however, it is clear that urgent work remains to be done if we are going to start making real inroads into the problem of fair access.