First-generation students less likely to pick arts and humanities

Data from the Office for Students appear to show vocational courses have bigger shares of such students

September 26, 2018
Going on a journey

Are students who are the first in their family to go to university more likely to choose a subject that would appear to give them a defined career path?

The intuitive answer that many people might give to this would be “yes”, but it appears that new data released by England’s Office for Students may also back this up.

According to figures released in a batch of experimental data on student characteristics by the OfS, undergraduates starting humanities and creative arts courses at English universities are more likely to say that their parents had gone to university.

Those starting natural science courses also were more likely to say that they came from such a background. For education and health subjects, however, the share was up to 15 percentage points lower.

Looking at the data from the other angle – in other words, the percentage of new students saying that their parents did not go to university – does appear to confirm that subjects that are more vocational in nature have a greater share of first-generation students.

However, the figures might need to be treated with some caution because there was a wide variation between subject areas in the share of students who either did not know or refused to give the information. For instance, in medical and education subjects, this represented more than 25 per cent of those giving a response, while for the humanities it was 17 per cent and for creative arts courses it was 13 per cent.

Overall, 42 per cent of students starting at English universities in 2016-17 said that they did not have a parent with a higher education qualification, against 38 per cent who said that they did, figures that were virtually the same in 2015-16, according to the OfS data.

This figure is only slightly different from data for the UK published in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education at a Glance report, which showed that 47 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds starting a degree did not have parents educated to the tertiary level.

The OECD data also showed that 64 per cent of the whole UK population of 18- to 24-year-olds did not have a parent who went to university. This gap of 17 percentage points in the under-representation of first-generation students at university was only one percentage point lower than the OECD average.

Countries where the gap is lower include Italy (although both students and the general population have a high proportion of people without HE-educated parents), Switzerland and Norway.

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