Written evidence submitted by Universities UK


Education Select Committee: Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds


Universities UK submission


About Universities UK


Universities UK (UUK) is the representative organisation for the UK’s universities. Founded in 1918, its mission is to be the voice for universities in the UK, providing high quality leadership and support to its members to promote a successful and diverse higher education sector. With 137 members and offices in London, Cardiff (Universities Wales) and Edinburgh (Universities Scotland), it promotes the strength and success of UK universities locally, nationally and internationally.


Not all sections of the inquiry’s terms of reference are relevant to UUK’s work, however this submission will address the experience of left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in a higher education context.



















Written Submission- Left behind white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds



Widening Participation


  1. Universities have made good progress in widening participation and access for disadvantaged students in recent years; in 2019 the entry rate of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR 4, quintile 1) reached a record 21% up from 13% in 2009. Universities, as autonomous institutions, are well-placed to devise their own strategies to support different under-represented groups into, through, and beyond higher education working with students, schools and government.


  1. Information is vital to the success of these strategies but currently universities are not able to access data that could improve their inclusivity strategies, such as FSM data. Universities UK (UUK), along with charities with social mobility at their core, have been urging the government to make prospective students’ FSM status available to universities as one of several indicators that would help institutions design and monitor their access activities.


White pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds


  1. In 2019, research from the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) revealed that white young people in receipt of FSM were the least likely, next to those from Gypsy/Roma backgrounds, of any group to enter higher education. The research also suggested that for 50% of universities, less than 5% of students admitted were white and from LPNs[1]. This can be at least in part attributed to the persistent attainment gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at school level. The Education Policy Institute 2019 progress report found that by the end of secondary school, disadvantaged pupils are 18.1 months behind non-disadvantaged pupils[2].


  1. In 2019, research from the Department for Education (DfE) found that the percentage of 15-year-old, state funded and special school, white British FSM males in England who entered higher education by age 19 was 12.8%[3] in 2017/18. Although this has increased 4 percentage points since 2009-10, the entry rate has been consistently lower than other ethnic groups.


  1. There is clearly more work to be done at early years, school and university level to improve the attainment of white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and support them into higher education. In DfE’s 2018 guidance for the Office for Students (OfS), a target group identified as ‘needing the most attention and support’ was ‘access for young white males from disadvantaged backgrounds’[4].


University actions


  1. The attainment gaps that exist between white pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (particularly boys) and their peers has been an increasing focus of media and political attention in recent years. In line with this, 90% of institutions that responded to a 2019 NEON survey said they were engaged in work to support the progression of white pupils from LPNs into higher education, 50% higher than the results of the same survey in 2016. The same research by NEON found that for 2019/20, almost 20% of higher education providers included a specific target for white pupils from LPNs in their Access and Participation Plans. While such targets are less common than those aimed at certain other social mobility and equality challenges (e.g. to reduce the university degree-awarding gap between white and black students), this does represent a positive step.


  1. Examples of targets and priorities within universities’ Access and Participation Plans aimed at white working class pupils include:



  1. Several universities and groups of institutions have created initiatives to improve access for disadvantaged white pupils and increase understanding of the barriers that exist. A few examples are below:



  1. Universities across England are driving progress in access to higher education in partnership with schools through the Uni Connect programme. Innovative approaches to outreach are being tested alongside established interventions with different groups of young people in different contexts. Current evidence signals encouraging signs that the programme is benefiting learners who participate, including for white learners and those living in areas of relatively high deprivation.[17]


Degree Apprenticeships


  1. Universities UK research for ‘The Future of Degree Apprenticeships’ report found that employers and universities work closely together to ensure degree apprenticeships are used to support social mobility. We welcome this and support the use of targets around degree apprenticeships in access and participation plans. Given that apprenticeships are employer-led, we also recommend that employers should engage, and be invited and incentivised to engage, more proactively in outreach in schools, and to become further involved in providing careers advice and guidance.


  1. More should be done to increase the take up of degree apprenticeships by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, include ‘left behind white pupils’, given that in 2016-17 only 13% of young degree-level apprentices were from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. However, in comparative terms, 30% of degree apprentices came from areas under-represented in higher education, slightly higher than the 26% entering similar full-time higher education courses[18].



The impact of Covid-19




  1. New research indicates that educational inequalities and attainment gaps at school could be increasing during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has estimated that school closures are likely to reverse some of the progress made in closing the attainment gap in the last decade between disadvantaged children and their peers; the median estimate indicates that the gap would widen by 36%[19]. Pupils from the most disadvantaged schools are spending less time learning and less time in contact with their teachers than pupils from private schools[20]. If pupils do not go back to school until September, there is a risk that the most disadvantaged will have received up to 15 fewer full school days of learning[21]. This has implications for disadvantaged pupils in Year 12’s attainment and subject knowledge as they start to make decisions about possibly entering higher education after Year 13.


  1. In response, universities have put in place initiatives and schemes to ensure students are prepared for university life with the skills they need to succeed. This is particularly important for students from LPNs that are less likely to have the experience and advice of friends and family to draw on, or additional resources. Examples of this include the University of Newcastle which has expanded its Year 12 summer schools to include 700 pupils, and Brunel University London which launched GetUReady[22], an 8-week programme for year 13 pupils including taster lectures, whether they had applied to Brunel or not.


  1. Universities UK welcomes that the Office for Students’ proposed new condition of registration for universities in England took on board many of the areas of concern we expressed in our consultation response, including those centred on widening participation. As outlined above, Covid-19 is exacerbating existing attainment gaps, including between white working class pupils and their peers, and therefore it is vital that universities can continue to make contextual offers to pupils that have been particularly negatively affected by the pandemic but have the potential to benefit from a university education.


  1. The introduction of the National Tutoring Programme to support schools to address the impact of school closures on pupils’ learning is welcome, however it does not extend to 16-18 year olds. Extending coverage to include these age groups in partnership with universities’ extensive outreach activity would deliver huge benefits for disadvantaged pupils preparing for higher education.


  1. Other announcements in the Summer Statement have the potential to level up opportunity for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds including those that aspire to entering higher education, for example the Kickstart Scheme and £32m investment in the National Careers Service.



Retention and support


  1. Beyond access, UUK members have taken action to prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds from dropping out of university due to financial concerns. The majority of members have bolstered existing hardship funds and other examples of specific help including the University of Bath which is providing technology to all students that need it, and the University of Aberdeen which had over 100 alumni volunteer to provide mentoring and support for current students in need due to the pandemic.




  1. To support the prospects of students graduating from university in 2020, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, UUK has recommended that government provides targeted support for universities and businesses to set-up paid internship opportunities for graduates[23]. This would also support SMEs in the left behind regions of the UK which many white disadvantaged pupils come from, to retain graduate talent and break the cycle of disadvantage.



Harriet Jones

Senior Political Affairs Officer


July 2020







[1] National Education Opportunities Network (2019) Working class heroes: understanding access to higher education for white students from lower socio-economic backgrounds

[2] Education Policy Institute (2019) Education in England: Annual Report 2019

[3] DfE (2019) Widening Participation in Higher Education

[4] DfE (2018) Access and participation: Secretary of State for Education Guidance to the Office for Students (OfS)

[5] SOAS, University of London (2020) Access and Participation Plan 2020-21 to 2024-25

[6] University of Bradford (2019) Access and Participation Plan 2019-20

[7] University of Newcastle (2019) Access and Participation Plan 2019-20

[8] University of Northampton (2020) Access and Participation Plan 2020-21 to 2024-25

[9] University of Bath (2020) Access and Participation Plan 2020-25

[10] FutureMe Challenge (2020) ‘Finding your future in Higher Education in the North East’

[11] The Sutton Trust (2020) UK Summer Schools

[12] Office for Students (2020) Aim Higher West Midlands: Reach Out

[13] University of East Anglia (2018) ‘White working class boys encouraged to think ‘He can, we can

[14] University of East London (2020) Access and Participation Plan 2020-25

[15] Kings College London What Works Department (2019) ‘Helping working class females find their place at university’

[16] Bishop Grosseteste University (2019) Access and Participation Plan 2019-20

[17]CFE Research, Sheffield Hallam University and Behavioural Insights Team (2019)

[18] Universities UK (2019) The Future of Degree Apprenticeships

[19] Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Best evidence of impact of school closures on the attainment gap

[20] Teacher Tapp (2020)

[21] IFS (2020)

[22] Brunel University London (2020) GetUReady

[23] Universities UK (2020) ‘Supporting Graduates in a Covid-19 Economy’