Poor students tend to stay in their home area and go to post-92 institutions despite getting top A-level grades. If they took their fair share of places at leading universities, 3,000 privately educated pupils would be denied entry. Paul Hill reports
The neighbourhood where children grow up not only affects their chances of going to university, it also influences their choice of institution and subjects. Hefce research suggests that students from an area with little or no tradition of sending teenagers to university - invariably the poorest neighbourhoods - are 25 per cent more likely to study at an institution within a 30-minute car journey from their home than those from affluent areas, where the majority of young people enter higher education.
This notion that students from poor homes are more likely to study at local institutions is reinforced by the finding that in 2000, 34 per cent of students from low-participation areas lived at home while they studied, while 15 per cent of students from more affluent areas did the same.
So why does geography influence the choice of where to study for so many students from poor backgrounds in a way it does not for affluent students?
Separate research by the Sutton Trust last year suggests that each year about 3,000 young people attending state schools and sixth-form colleges do not apply to the top 13 universities in the country - a mix of the Russell Group and 1994 Group of institutions - even though they achieve or exceed the entry grades required.
The trust says that this means that 3,000 pupils from independent schools are entering leading universities each year who would not be there if higher achieving state pupils were taking up their fair share of places.
The research found that independent-sector students were as likely to go to a leading university as students from the state sector who achieved two grades higher at A level. While 45 per cent of independent-school students who had 26 A-level points in 2002 - an A and two Bs - went to one of the top 13 universities, the same is true of 26 per cent of state-school students. The Sutton Trust concludes that while many state-school students attend university, they are more likely to go to a post-1992 institution.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the trust, says that the findings suggest "perhaps a lack of ambition, but certainly a potential waste of talent".
The Hefce research also suggests that teenagers from areas with traditionally low participation in higher education are only marginally more likely to secure a university place through clearing.
However, they are twice as likely not to have A levels as their entry qualifications compared with teenagers from areas where the majority of young people go to university. Teenagers from the most affluent areas are twice as likely to take a gap year as those from the poorest.
Hefce also found "modest" differences in the choices of course that poor students made compared with teenagers from more affluent areas.
Students from areas with low participation rates are twice as likely to study for a higher national diploma or higher national certificate as teenagers from neighbourhoods with the greatest participation in higher education.
Eighteen per cent of students from areas with the highest levels of participation opted for languages, medicine, humanities or agriculture compared with 11 per cent of teenagers from areas least likely to send young people to university.
Twenty-one per cent of students from low-participation areas chose to study mathematics, computer science, nursing or education compared with 16 per cent of teenagers from high-participation areas.
But three times as many students from high-participation neighbourhoods went on to take a postgraduate education course as teenagers from low-participation areas.
Penny Jane Burke, lecturer in higher education in the School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, says the choices made by students from poor neighbourhoods are not simply a matter of money or practical problems such as travel or accommodation.
She says: "For example, work by Diane Reay, Stephen Ball and Miriam David highlights that making choices about where to study is not only about material and practical issues - it is also about deeper cultural issues, in terms of fitting in, and also issues of identity around class, race and feelings of belonging.
"Students from lower socioeconomic groups tend to internalise wider constructions of themselves as 'undeserving' and 'inferior' and tend to choose local institutions where they feel more comfortable. They tend not to choose more prestigious universities where they risk 'not fitting in'
and being a minority and where they would have to travel to unfamiliar areas outside of their local communities."
Burke adds that once the issue of gender is added to the equation, the picture is complicated further. "In my research project on masculinities and men accessing education, the men are not only making decisions about where to study in relation to practical and economic considerations, and in relation to a sense of belonging and fitting in, but also, for many minority ethnic men, where their extended families would approve.
"So the picture is not straightforward. Complex issues in relation to practical and material issues, age, ability, class, gender, family and identity all shape decisions about where to study."