A new national map of economic and social patterns reveals that your sex, when you were born and where you live all have a significant influence on your chances of attending university. Paul Hill reports
It is question that almost every parent will have pondered at some point.
What determines a child's chances of going to university at the age of 18 or 19? Is it innate academic ability or the quality of schooling received? Is it family background or the neighbourhood one lives in? Could it even be something as seemingly random as a child's sex or the month in which he or she was born?
There is no simple answer to the question, but a major Hefce study has provided some tantalising clues to the fundamental factors that influence university entry.
A research project by Hefce has created the first reliable and detailed map of university participation by postcode - charting the higher educational prospects of children from each of England's neighbourhoods between 1994 and 2000. But what makes the findings so powerful is that they reveal more than just where children live: they capture other key characteristics - from children's sex to the month they were born - and show how these affect their chances of higher education later in life.
Rather than using the Government's usual definition in higher education terms of "young people" as those aged 18 to 30, the report has focused on 18 and 19-year-olds, who are the majority of each year's university intake.
There are some intriguing results. Some confirm expectations, others suggest new avenues of research. Consider the eye-catching statistic that a child born in September is up to 20 per cent more likely to go to university than a child born in August - a finding with obvious implications for family planning (see panel, facing page). If every child had the same chance of attending university in later life as those born in September, there would be an extra 12,000 undergraduates a year.
Moreover, by 2000, young women were 18 per cent more likely than men to get a degree-level education - and men were two thirds more likely to drop out of their university course.
But drawing together data from a variety of sources, including detailed neighbourhood information from the 2001 Census and child-benefit data, one clear message comes through.
Where you live matters. The odds of going to university vary markedly between the English regions. London's 18 and 19-year-olds were 50 per cent more likely to go to university in 2000 than their counterparts in the North East. In 2000, 33 per cent of teenagers in the South East went to university, but only 26 per cent of their peers in Yorkshire and the Humber joined them.
A stark picture of divided towns and cities is painted, in which some children have a two in three chance of going to university, while their peers a couple of miles away would think that staying on at school after the age of 16 was odd.
Take the example of Sheffield. The city's Hallam parliamentary seat boasts one of the country's highest participation rates in higher education - 61 per cent of its young people went to university in 2000.
Just a few miles away in Sheffield Brightside - the parliamentary seat of David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary - only 6 per cent of teenagers went into higher education in 2000, a figure that makes it the bottommost constituency in England in terms of participation.
The Hefce research also underlines the fact that low participation is not a phenomenon confined to rundown inner cities. Nor is it an issue facing one political party more than the others.
Look closely at a rural Conservative seat such as North West Norfolk, and the proportion of young people going from the area to university is similar to that in Labour's London seat of Bethnal Green and Bow: just 26 per cent.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Hefce research found evidence of a link, in geography at least, between teenagers' likelihood of going to university and the performance of their neighbourhood state school in terms of the number of GCSE A to C grades.
Nonetheless, London is a city where the pattern of poverty and university participation does not follow the national trend.
Comparing the most deprived 20 per cent of council wards inside and outside London, the proportion of young working-class Londoners going to university is 73 per cent higher than their counterparts in other areas of England.
But the areas young people come from also influence the type of institution they attend and the types of courses they apply to take.
Young people from places with little or no tradition of sending teenagers to university are 25 per cent more likely to study at a local university - one within a 30-minute car journey from their home - than their peers from an area where most youngsters enter higher education.
As a result, 34 per cent of teenagers from areas where participation in higher education is low live at home while they study, compared with 15 per cent of university entrants from areas with a high participation rate.
Medicine, languages and humanities are all subjects that appear to be more popular with students from high-participation areas - the favoured disciplines of the upper and middle classes - while computer science, maths, education and nursing are relatively more popular with their counterparts from low-participation areas.
But the key finding of the Hefce research is that through the mid to late Nineties, the relative likelihood of getting a degree for teenagers in one part of the country or one town as opposed to another changed little, underlining how deeply ingrained the inequalities remained between the haves and the have-nots. Where higher education has expanded, teenagers from affluent backgrounds were more likely to claim the places than their peers from poor areas.
Nonetheless, in the 2001 Labour manifesto, the Government set itself the target of sending 50 per cent of all 18 to 30-year-olds to university within ten years.
Taking a more narrow focus on teenagers, the Hefce research suggests that about 29 per cent of 18 and 19-year-olds entered university in 2000 - a rate that falls to 25 per cent once the impact of students dropping out of courses is taken into account.
Intriguingly, Hefce found no evidence that the replacement of student grants with loans and the introduction of the upfront tuition fees in 1998 deterred teenagers from going to university, nor did it prompt a surge of early applications from students keen to avoid paying fees.
Could this be an indicator of what might happen when new student finance arrangements - variable tuition fees, grants and bursaries - come into force in 2006?
Predictions that the shift to a "mass" higher education system in England with fees would turn postgraduate study into the preserve of the social elite have also proved unfounded.
The Hefce research suggests that at postgraduate level, students'
geographical background has a "negligible" additional effect, even if the neighbourhood in which they were born and grew up were decisive factors during their secondary schooling and undergraduate studies.